Wednesday, November 07, 2012

From Chinese famines to agile

A recent economist reviews a book on the "The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962" and writes the following:

"The Great Leap Forward was the high point of ignorant Maoist folly. Chairman Mao said in 1957 that China could well overtake the industrial output of Britain within 15 years. People left the fields to build backyard furnaces in which pots and pans were melted down to produce steel. The end product was unusable. As farmers abandoned the land, their commune leaders reported hugely exaggerated grain output to show their ideological fervour. The state took its share on the basis of these inflated figures and villagers were left with little or nothing to eat. When they complained, they were labelled counter-revolutionary and punished severely. As the cadres feasted, the people starved. Mr Yang calculates that about 36m died as a result."
When I read this, I could not help thinking that too many software development teams are starved from doing the right thing because they have promised, or someone promised for them, something they cannot deliver. The result and its dynamics are not very different from the story above, let me paraphrase this as follows:
Someone with authority decides that X will be developed in Y amount of time. No one in development dares to contradict the order and work is started. Given the predefined schedule, no solid analysis can be made (aka harvest sowed) but more importantly little effort is made to make the project "self-consistent" across all its requirements, for example that it is defined to be usable from day one (aka making sure the village stays sustainable). As there is not enough resources "to go around" (aka not enough food for all), there is no point thinking about "fixing" the problems as they accumulate (aka farms are deserted, crops rot, nothing is done to fix this), and so developer will "just write code" with the foremost goal of fulfill the initial request (aka pots and pans will be melted) but as design and cohesive goals are lacking, as well as the developer team's understanding of what they are really trying to deliver (aka farmers do not know how to work steel), the effort to fit things together to cover the scope the project just grows and grows... Upon failing to deliver, and there will be a few failed deliveries, moral will plummet, as will productivity, key people may leave (aka farmers and their family starve to death). In the end mush pain and suffering will happen before something is done. One option is to pull the plug on the project, the other is to go agile with it: throw away the promised time line, build a backlog, see what you can do, at which point you can still decide to pull the plug.

This, maybe bleak, example of failure does lead us to an observation: capitalism does put pressure on management to avoid the scenario above. The problem is that many managers, even under pressure to make a profit, do not know how to do so! They do not understand how projects differ, they know only how to do what they did before. Therefore from time to time, you will see them kicking off projects that ultimately will be disastrous.

Agile does not keep you from making mistakes, but applied well, it will alert you of your follies (or others people follies) before they destroy you. Understanding how different types of projects need different style of leadership is helpful (see blog entry on greenfield projects, and on legacy projects).