Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The Myth of Discovery

It amazes me how insular and inward-facing the software industry is. And how the "agile" movement is reaping the benefits of a very simple characteristic.

For example, consider Jeff Palermo's essay on "The Myth of Self-Organizing Teams". Now, nothing against Jeff, or his post, per se, but it amazes me how our industry believes that they are somehow inventing new concepts, such as, in this case the "self-organizing team". Team dynamics have been a subject of study for decades, and anyone with a background in psychology, business, or sales has probably already been through much of the material on it. The best teams are those that find their own sense of identity, that grow from within, but still accept some leadership from the outside--the classic example here being the championship sports team. Most often, that sense of identity is born of a string of successes, which is why teams without a winning tradition have such a hard time creating the esprit de corps that so often defines the difference between success and failure.

(Editor's note: Here's a free lesson to all of you out there who want to help your team grow its own sense of identity: give them a chance to win a few successes, and they'll start coming together pretty quickly. It's not always that easy, but it works more often than not.)

How many software development managers--much less technical leads or project managers--have actually gone and looked through the management aisle at the local bookstore?

Tom and Mary Poppendieck have been spending years now talking about "lean" software development, which itself (at a casual glance) seems to be a refinement of the concepts Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers were pursuing close to two decades ago. "Total quality management" was a concept introduced in those days, the idea that anyone on the production line was empowered to stop the line if they found something that wasn't right. (My father was one of those "lean" manufacturing advocates back in the 80's, in fact, and has some great stories he can tell to its successes, and failures.)

How many software development managers or project leads give their developers the chance to say, "No, it's not right yet, we can't ship", and back them on it? Wouldn't you, as a developer, feel far more involved in the project if you knew you had that power--and that responsibility?

Or consider the "agile" notion of customer involvement, the classic XP "On-Site Customer" principle. Sales people have known for years, even decades (if not centuries), that if you involve the customer in the process, they are much more likely to feel an ownership stake sooner than if they just take what's on the lot or the shelf. Skilled salespeople have done the "let's walk through what you might buy, if you were buying, of course" trick countless numbers of times, and ended up with a sale where the customer didn't even intend to buy.

How many software development managers or project leads have read a book on basic salesmanship? And yet, isn't that notion of extracting what the customer wants endemic to both software development and basic sales (of anything)?

What is it about the software industry that just collectively refuses to accept that there might be lots of interesting research on topics that aren't technical yet still something that we can use? Why do we feel so compelled to trumpet our own "innovations" to ourselves, when in fact, they've been long-known in dozens of other contexts? When will we wake up and realize that we can learn a lot more if we cross-train in other areas... like, for example, getting your MBA?