Context is no longer King

One of my frustrations as a software practitioner is our seemingly programmed human bias toward keeping the status quo.

I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if the status quo (pictured above) was actually something approaching effective, inspiring or at least motivating. But unfortunately the reality for many (most) people making their living in the crazy (in a bad way) world of software development remains one of boredom, dysfunction, wasting time on unimportant things, going along with stupid decisions (or lack of them), stress, hatred of Mondays, being put in our place by our “superiors”, et cetera, et cetera.

“23,858 tweets and counting. Worthwhile or a colossal waste of time?”

I tweeted this yesterday. Often I wonder why I stay in an industry that suffers from the afflictions listed above. My work mood swings from utter dejection to tremendous elation. Like the software we create, the variability in my mental state is subject to wild fluctuations.

Here’s the thing. The reason I do this; the reason I stay in the industry, tweet opinions, tips and debate; the reason I write these blog posts; the reason I give a significant portion of my time freely, mostly at my own cost, to talk at meetup groups, conferences and company brown-bag lunches; is…

Because I want to play a small part in creating a better world of work for those involved in software development.

Particularly developers, who I believe have been treated for years like some kind of underclass in organisations of all sizes and industries. Crammed like sardines into some dark, dingy corner of the building, given to-the-letter specifications of some crappy software system that will keep them busy for a few months and then will never be used by a soul. Forced to commit to an estimate of how long this will all take (minus whatever needs to be trimmed off because the estimate doesn’t fit into the already agreed timelines). Constantly being micro-managed and asked “why is this taking so long?” and “why is this so hard?”.

Yes, I’m angry about this. And I want things to change. So I’m trying to do that in my own little way.

I want us to start treating smart, motivated people with the respect they deserve – right from the moment we hire them. Why on earth companies put engineers through 3 or 4 rounds of interviews and then fail to actually trust them once they get the job is beyond me. Managers continue to spoon feed solutions to their subordinates because they “can’t be trusted” to solve business problems quickly and efficiently enough.

This is why I am challenging the status quo in our industry. Sometimes what I write or say is found provocative by some. One dimensional. Context-less. “It depends on the context”, people say. “There’s no one right way. No advice is universal.”

I get disappointed (sometimes annoyed) when people who have never met me and know nothing about my professional reputation and abilities confuse what I tweet as “professional advice”, and then start questioning my integrity and ability as a consultant. It is hypocritical and way off the mark.

The reason why people write blog posts with provocative titles, and tweet with controversial hashtags, is because it is interesting. It invites conversation and debate. It stirs things up a bit. God knows (and so should the rest of us) that this industry is in dire need of some stirring up.

I was questioned by a couple of people about a tweet I wrote recently:

“In fact my tip is NEVER do a MoSCoW prioritisation. The implied fixing of scope makes change very difficult. Order things instead.”

A tweet, I might add, that was retweeted dozens of times, so obviously resonated with many.

I was told that my opinion was “unjustified”. That I shouldn’t make “categorical statements”. That “never is a long time”. That some poor soul may take my advice (assuming a tweet constitutes professional advice?!) and destroy a project because I am uninformed about their “context”.

I am constantly told the same kind of things about the #NoEstimates debate. That I can’t tell people not to estimate because I don’t know their context. Their boss might need estimates. Sometimes we need them, sometimes we don’t. Et cetera, et cetera.

With all due respect to these people, they are completely missing the point. For a start, I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that people would read a tweet from little old me and that would somehow create a chain of events that would destroy a project. Even if I were someone with anywhere near the influence and expertise of the great Ron Jeffries or Kent Beck, I don’t think I would yield that kind of power over people.

I do not use Twitter to dish out free professional advice. It is a forum for opinion, conversation and debate. Well written tweets resonate with people in some way, such that they retweet them, favourite them or, preferably, start conversations about them.

Perhaps reading a tweet like the one above will encourage someone to think a bit more about a practice that they have always done without question. To look into alternative ways of organising and prioritising work. To completely reject what I’m saying. Good tweets create a reaction, and whether this reaction is an angry disagreement or a nodding of the head, it has done its job.

Twitter is not to be taken too seriously, but the conversations it can create are serious and, I believe, are helping us as an industry to increasingly question long established practices. This can help us improve the way we work. The way we think. It is vitally important for us to have our world view challenged on a regular basis. This is how we learn and evolve.

I don’t just want to read tweets saying that “it depends on context”. Stuff that confirms my world view. Stuff that I agree with all the time. If every piece of advice or opinion “depends on context” then we might as well just give up trying to improve things.

“Depending on your context, you might want to consider alternatives to MoSCoW prioritisation. However, if it works for you then fine, just keep on doing it.”

Politically correct, perhaps, but it’s not exactly going to give me a reaction. I’ll probably not even notice that tweet on my timeline. “Be happy”. Ooh, can’t say that, it depends on context.

Moving away from social media for a second and into the real world of professional coaching and consulting – As Agile coaches I believe we can do much, much more for our clients. If someone tells me that I’m being unprofessional for suggesting better alternatives than MoSCoW then we are on different planes, I’m afraid. I know that there are certain principles and practices that have proved effective for me time and time again.

I’m not alone on this. I believe some statements are universally applicable, regardless of context. Questioning the way we do things doesn’t depend on context. Respecting each other and striving to work more collaboratively doesn’t depend on context. Adopting good engineering practices will help you to deliver incrementally and iteratively at a constant pace over time – this is universally applicable also.

Of course context is important – to me that’s so obvious that I can’t believe people keep saying it. We know that. It goes without saying.

But it’s not the point. The point is that many, many companies are still struggling to grasp the principles and practices that we in the Agile and Lean community know can increase effectiveness. Our clients deserve better advice from us than “well, if that’s working for you then keep on doing it”. We all know that something “working” is a perception and may actually be destroying the morale of the employees, or even putting the business as a whole at risk.

It is not “professional” for us to keep playing the context card. We need to be bold in our decisions and advice giving. Take risks. Challenge the status quo. Encourage innovation, not just of products but of process also. Be a true change agent, not just blend into the environment.

If you like what I tweet and blog, that’s wonderful so please do keep following! If you don’t like it, please unfollow. Twitter is wonderful because it is the ultimate pull system. If we don’t like what we see we can block and unfollow. We can filter out content that doesn’t interest us. It’s brilliant. And I shall continue to use it to challenge, provoke and generate conversation and debate. I cannot begin to measure how much I have learned and evolved my thinking thanks to conversations on, or starting on, Twitter. I’m pretty sure others will say the same.

And I will continue to help clients, in their context, get better whilst trying to create happy and humane workplaces. I want to live in a world where people enjoy going to work. It’s time away from our family and friends, and we spend most of our time there, so for God’s sake if we’re not enjoying it then what are we doing?

I don’t get it right all the time. Probably not even most of the time. But I do this because I care. I will continue to risk getting lambasted by people and losing the respect of gurus and experts. Like the rest of us, I don’t know it all – far from it. But I do not learn by being uncontroversial and not pushing the boundaries of what I believe or how I think things should work.

Thanks for listening 🙂

Note: I will write a follow-up post about  MoSCoW prioritisation itself. Aside from the fact that it perpetuates the myth of “requirements” (if something is not a “must-have” then how can it be a requirement?), I’m not including my further ideas on the topic here because it’s not really what this post is about.

Many have already written about the damage it can do and some better alternatives to set you on the road to delivering a successful project (read building a successful product). For starters, Joakim Holm wrote a great post about it the other day. And there’s lots more to investigate using our friend Google!

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