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.