A problem with labels
I find language fascinating. In fact, it is more understanding and contradictions of words that fascinates me. The same word said to two different people can conjure up wildly different opinions, thoughts, reactions and feelings. This is an example of the map and territory relationship or the philosophy of perception. Perception is reality to the person who perceives. This is why nouns and labels within the world are useful and, potentially, dangerous and confusing. Good marketeers use labels to attach good reactions and feelings to their products and services which draw people into in to spending their hard-earned money. However, in my world I come across confusion to labels every day because the label has become a bucket for concepts. An example that everyone can relate to is the word Gentleman. This word is commonly used today to denote a man who is inherently good – ‘He is a fine Gentleman’ or ‘He’s a Gentleman and a Scholar’. However, the meaning of the label in the UK was originally to describe someone of noble birth who was entitled to a coat of arms. The meaning has been blurred from a noun to more of a describing word (although it is a noun) meaning good, courteous or chivalrous.
The crux of the matter for project delivery
In the world of software development there are a couple of words that spark and generate numerous debates. These are the words Agile, Lean and Waterfall. I always find the debates fascinating because I like to understand what meaning has been attached to the label by the debater. The word waterfall has been used for decades to describe an overall project process that is phased from analysis all the way through to deployment of software. Such a delivery has been categorised as one with a long process, laden with hand-offs, and lack of feedback and learning cycles. In practice it is often seen as a method that tries to nail all the requirements upfront and then to all the design before actually building any software. But, I have seen other processes that build right from the start in parallel to other activities. I have seen variants with good learning and feedback loops. So, to use a label like Waterfall really conjures up people’s previous experiences in working on projects that could have taken a long time. This is really a massive generalisation and doesn’t necessarily speak to the challenges of project delivery.
The same can be said for Agile and Lean. Again, these words conjure up elements of good behaviour to people who have been involved in projects that have an iterative heartbeat. These projects can be categorised as one with learning cycles that have been built into the system, and software is used to measure progress – to name a couple. However, I have seen iterative methods been used very successfully on projects that still only had one delivery into production that took year (because the market really dictated this launch approach).
Taking a more principled approach
With emergn we try to move past the label approach quite quickly. Instead, the approach that I try to take is to understand the systemic issues with the current project delivery approach. The question shouldn’t be about do we want to do Waterfall or Lean or Agile. The question should be – ‘what do we want to be as an organisation?’ Every company I walk into has laudable values papered up on their walls, in their media and collateral, and even on mugs and t-shirts, but when you actually look at the behaviours within projects it is always unclear how the actual day-to-day working matches to the values being displayed so ostentatiously. I would argue every organisation would want to be described as agile or lean. Not one of them would like to be a waterfall (whatever that is!). Agility comes from the organisation’s system of delivery. The people, processes and technology that are in place. Kent Beck first introduced the idea of a more principled approach to the delivery of software as part of XP. This very much fitted with the ideas of thinking tools and the principles of lean. Bringing the best bits from these different schools of thought helps us move past the debate of labels and onto solving problems in delivery organisations. I think it is time to move past the labels and more towards being able to describe what a company can do as a result of improving themselves. There is something said to setting a vision of how you want to operate and then working out how you live that vision.