Monday, June 4, 2012

How to spot a Fad

My initial post focused on the human cost of fads, an area I hope to expand on. Given the cost it would be great if professional practitioners, especially young ones had a means of spotting fads in the first place, and didn't have to learn how to recognise them the hard way.

As always there is a short answer to this question and a long one. I will be looking at the longer answer to this question, using research material to do so in a future post, but for now here is the short answer:

  • If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is - This is the root of the "snake-oil" phenomena. The idea that a single sip of snake-oil will turn you into an olympic athlete is really attractive, but life is seldom like this. Most things of value require good old-fashioned hard-work to attain.
  • Just because it works for some, doesn't mean it will work for you - This is about spotting the myth of universality. The idea that there are universal rules that work in all context with all people. Beyond the most simplistic phenomena, this is simply not true. Life just isn't like that. People are complex, and with complexity comes diversity. What works for some, in a given context won't work for others. So a claim of universality is a sure way to spot a fad.
  • All ideas have prerequisites. A sweet-spot where they hold sway - This is the opposite of the idea of a golden hammer. There are no golden hammers. Fad free advocates go to pains to describe the prerequisites that are needed for success, spelling out where an idea works and more importantly where it does not. If this information is omitted from the sales pitch, then this is another sure sign of a fad.

I came across this article on Quality Circles recently that shows how a good idea can easily become a fad. I chose this article because the subject matter is neutral for most software practitioners, avoiding the usual religious wars. After describing what a quality circle is, the article goes on to describe the demise of the idea in the West:

However, the method [Quality Circles] also came in for a good deal of criticism. Even Joseph Juran, one of the two American post-war germinators of the quality idea (the other was W. Edwards Deming), considered that quality circles were pretty useless if the company’s management was not trained in the more general principles of total quality management.

Others criticised the way in which the idea was transferred from one culture to another without any attempt to tailor it to local traditions. It may, such critics suggested, be well suited to Japan’s participative workforce, but in more individualistic western societies it became a formalised hunt for people to blame for the problems that it identified. The original intention was for it to be a collective search for a solution to those problems.

Quality circles fell from grace as they were thought to be failing to live up to their promise. A study in 1988 found that 80% of a sample of large companies in the West that had introduced quality circles in the early 1980s had abandoned them before the end of the decade. In his book “Quality: A Critical Introduction”, John Beckford quotes the example of a western retailer that took almost every wrong step in the book. These included:

• training only managers to run quality circles, and not the staff in the retail outlets who were expected to participate in them;

• setting up circles where managers appointed themselves as leaders and made their secretaries keep the minutes. This maintained the existing hierarchy which quality circles are supposed to break out of;

• expecting staff to attend meetings outside working hours and without pay;
• ignoring real problems raised by the staff (about, for example, the outlets’ opening hours) and focusing on trivia (were there enough ashtrays in the customer reception area).
Replace the label "Quality Circle", with "Agile", "Scrum", "Lean", "Kanban" or any of a number of ideas in Software Development that have been oversold and have under-delivered, and you will see that any idea can succumb to faddism. Very little is fad free.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Post Agile - Moving beyond Fads, Really this time!

"Hello, world" - This blog is about an idea. It's an idea I've been thinking about for awhile now. Let me introduce you to this idea by way of a question:

How does the budding software developer, Manager, BA, etc, sift through the public relations barrage that passes today as "informed comment" to discover what it really takes to develop high quality software?

Sounds like yet another sales pitch right? Trust me, this site is not a rouge for any product or service, honest :)

Right with the disclaimer out the way, what is the answer to the question? Well easy, just walk up to someone who as been around the block a few times and ask them. The problem is of course is how do you know they aren't trying to sell you something? Or merely massaging their own ego at your expense? It turns out that this simple question, as a much less then simple answer, especially in a climate where you can't take anyones word at face value.

I've labelled the idea Fad Free Development. Finding ways to develop software better without falling into the trap of following the latest fad. It turns out that it is much harder then it sounds. I've been involved in more fads then I can shake a stick at. All were valuable to the early adopters, and all had more then a smidgeon of truth to them, but by the time they reach a mainstream audience they had all turned into something unrecognisable.

The short answer to banishing fads is to think for yourself. Getting to the stage where you are able to do so however is a feat in itself. Besides thinking for yourself can't be productised. No one is going to try and sell it to you, simply because independent thought can't be bought.

The result is that the tools you need to think for your self aren't marketed so you never get to know about them, and invariably you have to go through the long sorry saga of trial and error to discover these tools yourself, one at a time, paying a heavy price at the school of hard knocks. Well at least I had to. When I think about the dead end fads that I spent hours, no years following, to only realise later that 90% was BS and the other 10% could have been summed up in a few sentences.

The injustice of it all. Surely there must be a better way? Well I think there is. My plan is to use the same tools that are used to sell fads to market and sell independent thought. But wait a minute, didn't I just say that independent thought cannot be sold or bought? Yes, true, but it can be given away. Hopefully with your help we can biuld a knowledge repository containing ideas and thinking tools that will free the minds of the many. The reward will be a larger pool of free thinkers, making the ecosystem in which we all have to live that more pallatable. At a minimum I hope to discover fellow like-minds. And of course my ultimate goal is to bring an end to fads once and for all :)

Sounds gradious? I don't think so. With all the tools at the disposal of the modern internet guerilla marketter I think its possible. If the web can bring down totalitarian governments, I'm sure it can remove the scales of ignorance from the eyes of the software development community.

Now I can't be the only one out there with this desire. I'm open to ideas on how we can develop this idea. I mentioned fraternity. I resent the price I had to pay to learn how to recognise BS when I see it. I'm sure that there are a bunch of seasoned practitioners out there that have had to pay a similar price, and like me would like to see the whole sorry cycle stopped, before it saps the life force from another generation of practitioners :)

Well now is your opportunity to join me. I want to invite guest bloggers. I want to make this a community effort. I'm also thinking of other internet media, like a wiki, Facebook etc.

So think of this as a call to arms for the well- informed to help out the less well- informed. Simply because we were all green and vulnerable once, and freeing our community from the tyranny of fads is the right thing to do.

Oh yes - I mention Agile in the title of this post. Well it's the 10th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto, and where is Agile today? Yes you guest it, it's the latest fad. I'll have more to say about that in a subsequent post.

Bye for now, and remember: "Use the Force Luke" :)