Problem Space, Solution Space, and Tunnel Vision

Peter Kretzman‘s tweet about Sir Roland and his lightweight mini-shield brought both a smile to my face and the idea for this post. That idea actually has little to do with #NoEstimates (which I’ve touched on previously) and everything to do with architectural design. The cartoon highlights a design dysfunction that frequently manifests in systems:

Sir Roland has a point in that his shield is far easier to carry and wield than the traditional non-agile shield. Unfortunately, due to his tunnel vision, he probably won’t discover that the aspects that he focused on were peripheral to overall solution (i.e. keeping sharp implements out of Sir Roland’s innards) until it’s too late. Learning via experimentation is a powerful technique, but analysis has its place too, particularly when the value at risk is high.

Just as software is a system, so too are organizations (admittedly, systems that run on far less deterministic “hardware”, but systems nonetheless). Designing systems, particularly those that involve multiple stakeholders (i.e. nearly all that have more than one person involved with them), involves designing the solution space to best match the problem space. Note that I didn’t say “perfectly match the problem space”, as this conjunction is, in my opinion, unlikely to occur and should it occur, highly unlikely to persist. That being said, getting and keeping that match as close as possible to the theoretical perfect one is important. When a stakeholder’s influence on the solution is out of balance with their centrality to the problem, expect conflict.

IT’s traditional customer service is a notorious example of this type of imbalance at the organizational level. That imbalance also manifests in the technology realm in the forms of choosing solutions on the basis of justifying sunk costs, being apathetic toward user experience, chasing the tool/technique of the day, experimenting at the expense of the customer, and indulging in egotism.

Value for the owner of the system is a better tool to keep the proper balance. As the owner(s) should be the stakeholder(s) central to the problem space, where the solution is geared toward their needs it will most likely be well aligned to the problem. Where the concerns of peripheral stakeholders provide benefit to the central stakeholder(s) is where those concerns become important to the solution.

Unlike Sir Roland, failure to choose wisely may not be literally fatal, but it could be figuratively so.

#NoEstimates? #NoProjects? #NoManagers? #NoJustNo

Drawing of Oliver Cromwell

#NoX seems to be the current pattern for hashtags designed to attract attention. While they certainly seem to serve that purpose, they also seem to attract more than their fair share of polarized viewpoints. Crowding out the middle ground makes for better propaganda than discussion.

So why does a picture of a long dead English political figure grace a post about hashtags? Oliver Cromwell was certainly a polarizing figure, so much so that when the English monarchy was restored after his death, he was disinterred, posthumously hung in chains, and his head was displayed on a spike. Royalists hated him for overthrowing the monarchy and executing King Charles I. The more democratically inclined hated him for overthrowing Parliament to reign as Lord Protector (which had a nicer sound to it than “dictator”) for life. To his credit, however, he did have a way with words. One of my favorites of his quotes:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

That particular exhortation would well serve those who have latched onto the spirit of those hashtags without much reflection on the details. Latching onto the negation of something you dislike without any notion of a replacement doesn’t convey depth of thought. Deb Hartmann Preuss put it well:

For many of the #NoX movements, abuse of the X concept seems to be the rationale for doing away with it. Someone has done X badly, therefore X is flawed, irrational, or even evil. Another Cromwell quote addresses this:

Your pretended fear lest error should step in, is like the man that would keep all the wine out of the country lest men should be drunk. It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy, to deny a man the liberty he hath by nature upon a supposition that he may abuse it.

That some who do things will do those things badly should not come as a surprise. My singing voice is wretched, but to universally condemn singing as a practice because of that does not follow. Blatant fallacious thinking reflects poorly on advocates of a position.

In many cases, there seems to be a disconnect between those advocating these positions and the realities of business:

Owly Images

In response to his posting a link to “The CIO Golden Rule – Talking in the Language of the Business”, Peter Kretzman reported “…I saw people interpret “you need to talk in language of the biz” as being an “us vs. them” statement!” Another objected to the idea that the client’s wishes should be paramount: “the idea that the person with the purse has more of a voting right is one I don’t live under. i can vote to leave the table.” Now, I will give that one credit in that they recognize that “leaving the table” is the price for insisting on their own way (I’m assuming that they know that means quitting), but it still betrays a lack of maturity. In most case, we work for a client, not ourselves. How many times can one “leave the table” before they’re no longer invited to it in the first place.

The business is not a life support system for developers following their passion. Rather than it being their job to fund us, it is our job to meet their needs. Putting our interests ahead of the clients’ is wrong and arrogant. It is the same variety of arrogance that attempts to keep BYOD at bay. It is the same arrogance that tried to prevent the introduction of the PC into the enterprise thirty years ago. It failed then and given the rising technological savvy of our customers, has even less of a chance of succeeding now. Should we, as an profession, continue to attempt to dictate to our customers, we risk hearing yet another of Cromwell’s orations:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

This is not to say that the various #NoX movements are completely wrong. Some treat estimates as a permanent commitment rather than a projection based on current knowledge. That’s unrealistic and working to change that misconception has value. Management does not always equate to leadership and improving agility is a worthy goal provided focus is not lost. I’ve even written on the danger of focusing on projects to the detriment of the product. What is needed, however, is a balanced assessment that doesn’t stray into shouting slogans.

I’ve seen some defend their #NoX hashtag as a springboard to dialog (see the parts re: slogans, hyperbole, and propaganda above). They contend that “of course, I don’t mean never do X, that’s just semantics”. John Allspaw, however, has an excellent response to that:

Surfing the Plan

Hang loose

In a previous post, I used the Eisenhower quote “…plans are useless but planning is indispensable”. The Agile Manifesto expresses a preference for “Responding to change over following a plan”. A tweet I saw recently illustrates both of those points and touches on why so many seem to have problems with estimates:

Programming IRL:
“ETA for an apple pie?”
8h later:
“Where is it?”
“You didn’t tell me the dishes were dirty and you lacked an oven.”

At first glance, it’s the age-old story of being given inadequate requirements and then being held to an estimate long after it’s proven unreasonable. However, it should also be clear that the estimate was given without adequate initial planning, no “plan B” and when the issues were discovered, there was no communication of the need to revise the estimate by an additional 300%.

Before the torches and pitchforks come out, I’m not assigning blame. There are no villains in the scenario, just two victims. While I’ve seen my share of dysfunctional situations where the mutual distrust between IT and the business was the result of bad actors, I’ve also seen plenty that were the result of good people trapped inside bad processes. If the situation can be salvaged, communication and collaboration are going to be critical to doing so.

People deal with uncertainty every day. Construction projects face delays due to weather. Watch any home improvement show and chances are you’ll see a renovation project that has to change scope or cost due to an unforeseen situation. Even surgeons find themselves changing course due to circumstances they weren’t aware of until the patient was on the table. What the parties need to be aware of is that the critical matter is not whether or not an issue appears, but how it’s handled.

The first aspect of handling issues is not to stick to a plan that is past its “sell by” date. A plan is only valid within its context and when the context changes, sticking to the plan is delusional. If your GPS tells you to go straight and your eyes tell you the bridge is out, which should you believe?

Sometimes the expiration of a plan is strategic; the goal is not feasible and continuing will only waste time, money, and effort. Other times, the goal remains, but the original tactical approach is no longer valid. There are multiple methods appropriate to tactical decision-making. Two prominent ones are Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act and Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Each has its place, but have a looping nature in common. Static plans work for neither business leaders nor fighter pilots.

The second aspect of handling issues is communication. It can be easy for IT to lose sight of the fact that the plan they’re executing is a facet of the overarching plan that their customer is executing. Whether in-house IT or contractor, the relationship with the business is a symbiotic one. In my experience, success follows those who recognize that and breakdowns occur when it is ignored. Constant communication and involvement with that customer avoids the trust-killing green-green-green-RED!!! project management theater.

In his post “Setting Expectations”, George Dinwiddie nailed the whole issue with plans and estimates:

What if we were able to set expectations beyond a simple number? What if we could say what we know and what we don’t know? What if we could give our best estimate now, and give a better one next week when we know more? Would that help?

The thing is, these questions are not about the estimates. These questions are about the relationship between the person estimating and the person using the estimate. How can we improve that relationship?