Where Does All This Nonsense Come From?

(Image of J. Smith, trailblazer)

With my sincere apologies to those (like me) who could really care less about improving software practice, but who might have an interest in historical patterns, I submit this excerpt from an overlong post to a Yahoo Discussion Group. The conversation was centered around the announcement that the Software Engineering Institute had published a new guide to using "agile" practices within the framework of SEI's 'more mature' and widely sanctioned CMM method. Here goes:

Within SEI, there were (probably still are) two factions. I heard (just hearsay) that two principals at SEI approached two of the Agile Manifesto signatories to wish them luck shortly after the manifesto was made public. Apparently they had carried the same intentions in founding the SEI, but were compromised when the suits showed up.

One of the indices of a successful approach is that it attracts the attention of the suits. Think of the suits as the colonizers who follow the trailblazers and the pioneers. The trailblazers operate with extreme sensitivity to the context and appear to follow their noses and instincts because they have no roadmaps. The pioneers are content to follow the trailblazers' lead (head West), intent upon creating their own place in the world. The suits understand that there's no leverage in being a trailblazer (no royalties to earn on trails blazed, just perhaps a short-term commission to explore and write a report, maybe trap a few beaver along the way), or in being a pioneer (free land, but you have to build your own cabin and prove the land by living on it for X years). No economies of scale or speculation possible from either role.

The suits put up road signs, then pave the roads, levying taxes all along the way. They create municipalities so people don't have to trailblaze or pioneer, but just move (better yet, hire their moving company to move them). What was a self-motivated, self-organizing system becomes increasingly regulated and determined. Some call this civilization. 

SEI has faced the same difficulties Agile faces. Professional managers are neither trailblazers nor pioneers, and most have no experience with either, though they might well aspire to gain from both T and P insight and experience. But they are also interested in leveraging these insights, and this means replication. So they start by asking innocently paradoxical questions: What do trailblazers do? How do pioneers achieve results? They eventually answer their own questions by creating a regime of what are called best practices, which can be leveraged and finely replicated. That this distillation moves quickly away from the originating practice ain't surprising. The trailblazers move on, never having been married to civilization. A generation later, the homesteaders are landed gentry.

Before the watch, everyone had a finely-tuned ability to intuit time by using their senses. After the invention and wide distribution of the watch, most lost this ability, it being easier to just check the wrist. Reading the senses for time is now considered an arcane practice, practical only for boy scouts to earn  merit badges. Professionals wear watches, but also need to adopt processes to synchronize their watches. 

We've all seen the suits in action. heck, some of us have actually suited up. The prototypical suits come from heavily regulated, invariably HUGE enterprises, and know well how things get done there. They've studied how decisions are made there and how choices are selected, and understand that whatever they promote must be dressed up properly to pass initial muster. No greasy trailblazers. No dusty sodbusters. Specific, measurable, reducible, civilized practices only, please. 

So, SEI shoved out those pioneers who wouldn't submit, or drove them deep underground, replacing them with compliant, well-educated suits who know how things are supposed to be done, often without ever having actually done any of it themselves. But they have been certified as professionals, able to properly profess. And the enterprises warmly receive and submit, seeing possibilities for real leverage (read: dominion) over their projects. (Finally!) Well, at least they embrace the endless possibility of achieving this, without ever actually achieving this.

Well, they argue, most of what we do ain't properly characterized as either trailblazing or pioneering. They subsume the unpalatably feral practices by sanctioning them, by explaining how paving roads is actually the same as blazing trails, creating strange-sounding clones: Agile Waterfall, Agile + CMM "official" publication. (Note, Waterfall's trailblazers intended no less than Agile,'s but they were civilized over time. Civilized or moved on.)

I was reading the DoD's guidelines for Earned Value Program Management (I know, Satanic Verses), and was surprised to see in the introduction several interesting exhortations: 1- These are guidelines. Do not interpret them as mandated practices. 2- Do not use them if your project is: researchy, maintenancey, not well-characterized as strings of tasks/deliverables, or if the program is less than $20 million dollars in expected expenditures. Don't these caveats exclude most of the programs DoD initiates? The manual says little about what to do if the effort fails to satisfy these criteria, just threatens that EVM won't add enough value to be worth the effort otherwise.

A final analogy: The emerging farmers' market community has been trailblazing and pioneering a new way to produce and distribute food. Small farms. Cooperation between producers to distribute. A real community-organizing, ground-roots operation. Their opponent in everything they've done has been the Farm Bureau, the lobbying group encouraging subsidized industrial-scale production. The farmers' suits. The Farm Bureau has been insisting on 'a level playing field,' encouraging state and federal regulators to insist that small producers comply with the same rules that commodity producers are held to, even though the context is world's different. Farming 300,000 acres of commodity grain is not the same activity as farming a ten acre plot of arugula. 

Same story with projects, I think. The vast majority of projects are smallish affairs, ten acres or less. Intending to produce for local consumption. Never interacting with ADM, but asking a fair price from people who appreciate the essential eccentricity of local customs, traditions, and production. They thrive on community involvement rather than distant regulation and subsidy. They've mastered their kind of agriculture, and have little interest, and can see even less utility, in scaling up. They have little leverage, when their crop fails they lose, unless the community supports them because they share aspirations to be self-sufficient. None of them would properly adopt as necessary the agricultural equivalent of the DoD's EVPM system or even CMM, which was never intended to be used in their context, anyway. But the little guys borrow and steal from even those, banding together to accept credit cards, educate themselves and their customers in the importance of sanitation, and to lease market space. 

The little guys are small-a agile. The big guys might peek into their world and longingly sigh, remembering when farming was for them family and not corporate farming, but were they to adopt wholesale the agile practices, their system, which depends upon different leverage points, wouldn't sustain them. They aren't, except in fat years, so much farming land as farming the government, anyway. Still, the Farm Bureau has taken to using the language of the little guys, speaking of sustainability just as if their model was sustainable without heavy subsidy. Have you seen ADM's commercials on the news hour? They make me dewy-eyed. Suits are good at invoking genuine tears of association.

It's no gift to be sanctioned by SEI, but it needn't be a curse, either. It's just the suits again, trying to take credit for civilizing what was perfectly sustainable territory before. I think of this as a new SUV called 'trailblazer.' Just don't try to blaze any trails with it. Stay on the pavement at all times.

Hope this doesn't seem too cynical. I think we should know enough to be cynical, but choose not to become cynical. Don't know enough and you might be naive. No leverage in naivety. Choose to be cynical and you might as well surrender all aspiration. No leverage there, either.

Blazing too long of a trail for civilized consumption here,
david

(image of J. Smith, civilized)

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