Context is no longer King

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Status+Quo+-+Status+Quo+-+LP+RECORD-359951One 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 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.

Context-is-kingI 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. #Agile

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.

BulbMoving 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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11 thoughts on “Context is no longer King

  1. I’m wondering one thing. Based on this post you seem a bit surprised or even disappointed about the reactions that you receive to your tweets. But isn’t those reactions what you actually want to achieve? If the industry needs stirring up, why does it surprise you that people get “stirred up” about your posts/tweets?

    Anyway, I’m going to keep following and get stirred up about your tweets, at least for me you’ve already made the world a tiny bit better place.

    1. Thanks for your comment Antti. And I take your point!

      What I’m trying to say is that I’m disappointed when people focus on things like the wording of tweets or the title of blog posts or hashtags rather than the opinion itself.

  2. For me MOSCOW has been working sometimes when company starts adopting more Agile way of working. The only thing I like of it is explicit way of saying what is not done. Generally it’s easily waste and should not be needed when there is clear product vision and trust inside organization and between people. Waiting to hear what you will say about requirement prioritization.

    Anyway, this post reminded me again how hard it’s for professionals in this field to understand importance and basics of communication theories. Conversation is all about transforming message, giving feedback, getting feedback and creating therefore more knowledge to people who participate the conversation. It’s not about medium itself and individual message but whole communication context, if you like, which creates new meaning in individual mind. We don’t and we shouldn’t agree with everything but keep the conversation going on. ;)

    I would say that people in software industry should be more often educated what communication is. And how it impacts everyday job and environment. Not to mention that “Communication usually fails, except by accident” like Wiio stated in his laws of communication. :)

    1. Thanks Teemu.

      Interesting. I actually DON’T like the fact that MoSCoW specifies what isn’t being done. One of the tenets of Agile is that we welcome change, embrace it even. Why are we ruling anything out at such an early stage of a project? I prefer to explain to the stakeholders how product backlogs work, that nothing is guaranteed and nothing is off the table but we will always work on the most important/valuable things, starting from now. I worry about the scope discussions implicit in MoSCoW.

      Anyway, more to come in my upcoming post :)

  3. Hi, Neil,

    From the content, I suppose that this post might have been triggered by my tweet “‘never’ is a long time” and/or my post on Best Practices. I’m sorry if you took that as an insult. It’s certainly not intended to be one. I have a lot of respect for you, even when I disagree. I was certainly not questioning your integrity or ability.

    I’m not surprised that your tweet resonated with a lot of people and received a lot of retweets. I’m sure there are lots of people in a context where strict ordering seems like very good advice, or where MoSCoW prioritization has been done badly and therefore seems a universally bad practice. My post on Best Practices takes a slightly broader view, looking at it from other contexts that I have seen.

    I’m a bit puzzled when you say, on the one hand, that you’re disappointed and annoyed at reactions to your tweets, and on the other, that you say provocative things to invite conversation and debate. My response was an attempt at such conversation and debate. And when I could see that 140 character snippets was not being productive, I took the time to write a longer version of what I meant.

    Like you, do this because I care. I, too, want to create a better world of work for those involved in software development. I make a modest living as a consultant, but I also give untold hours of my time building communities, offering advice, and sharing knowledge for free. I do this because I want others to have the work environment that I wanted to have when I was an employee programmer.

    There are a number of statements in this post with which I disagree. It’s not that I think that they’re flat-out wrong. It’s that I think they’re considering only a narrow viewpoint that you feel strongly about at the moment. Anger tends to focus us that way. Those, however, are topics for another discussion, another day.

    If you think I consider context as a way of justifying the status quo, then you’ve misunderstood completely. I consider the context to provide the best advice for that context, and to offer help in a way that is likely to helpful in that context. Helpful in that it addresses a significant issue that can be addressed now, and helpful in that it can be heard.

    1. Hi George,

      The post is a reaction to a few different people/tweets. Actually I am completely happy with your engagement and disagreement on the MoSCoW stuff, and the broader topic of whether or not universal advice exists. Without naming names, the professional integrity attacks came from elsewhere.

      Like I said in a tweet to you a while ago, I think we probably agree on many things in terms of how software can be built in an effective and humane manner. I think where we differ quite strongly is in our approaches on social media. Personally I am not too concerned about a tweet or hashtag seeming context-less or extreme if it generates conversation and debate. I do not constitute a tweet as professional advice. God help anyone who does.

      I apologise for misunderstanding you. I think the same is probably true with you of me if you feel I have a “narrow viewpoint”. Those who know me and who have worked with me will testify to my extremely broad, contextual and pragmatic approach to problem solving. Especially when it comes to something so complex as organisational cultures.

      I do, however, get frustrated by many Agile coaches constantly playing the context card. We do not simply have to accept context as it is when engaging with clients. In fact it is our professional responsibility not to, in my opinion. We have been brought in because of a desire to get an external view and ideas on how to improve the context to a more effective one. Of course this must be approached in the right way, and what constitutes the “right way” completely depends on the environment, but that of course is where the skill and experience of an excellent coach should come to the fore.

      Always appreciative of the engagement, George. Like I said in my post, it is being challenged by experts and well-respected practitioners such as you that helps me expand my thinking. I hope the same benefit extends to you too.

  4. Hi Neil

    Just wanted to say that there are also a lot of people that do appreciate the ideas you help champion (even from the other side of the globe) :-)

  5. Keep on going: #NoEstimates has gained so much traction BECAUSE of the angry reaction that people have initially (and onwards in some instances)

    I’m never one to shy away from chucking in a conversational hand grenade – it’s what makes the world so much fun :)

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