Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

XP 2011: Esther Derby – Still no silver bullets

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The first keynote at XP 2011 was one given by Esther Derby titled ‘Still no silver bullets’ where she talked about some of the reasons why agile adoption seems to work in the small but often fails in the large.

Esther quoted Donella Meadows, the author of ‘Thinking in Systems‘, a few times which was an interesting coincidence for me as I’m currently reading her book.

One of the first quotes from that book was the following:

The original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its’ originating subsystems do their job better

Esther pointed out that a lot of times it seems like it’s the other way around and that the hierarchy is the point of the system in the first place.

Quite a lot of the rest of the talk was around the idea of looking at the systems in which we’re building software and seeing how we can ensure that people throughout the hierarchy have information that will help them make information.

People closer to the ground have the day to day information but the more senior management will have contextual or system information which is also useful for decision making.

Esther referred to this as the diamond of shared information.

My observation is that while people on the ground criticise management for not having day to day information, we don’t always make the effort or realise that we’re missing the system information.

In his lightening talk on systems thinking my colleague Pat Kua said that one of his roles as a consultant is to help people see the systems in their organisations.

I think this is an astute observation as Deming pointed that it’s difficult to see a system if you are inside it

A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside.

…which means it’s quite a useful thing for an outsider to do.

Another interesting observation made was that it’s useful if everyone within an organisation knows how the organisation makes money as this will help influence the way that they make decisions.

Esther used Amazon as an example of this and suggested that they make all their money off the float? which means that their people want to do whatever they can to ensure that books can get to customers as quickly as possible.

I know roughly how ThoughtWorks makes money but there’s certainly more that I could learn about that.

There were some other stories around people gaming systems in order to meet their targets which reminded me of Liz Keogh’s ‘Evil Hat‘ talk from QCon and is something which John Seddon points out frequently in ‘Freedom from command and control‘.

Esther suggested that while it’s useful to measure things to increase our learning it becomes problematic when we start recording those metrics and use them as targets.

Relative improvement contracts, where we measure our year on year performance versus ourselves or our competition, were suggested as an alternative to having targets. I could easily see those being used in a similar way to targets though so I’m not entirely sure of the difference.

I quite liked the section of the talk where Esther talked about metaphors and the paths that they take people down when they hear a metaphor being used.

The following chain of events was suggested:

Metaphor -> Story -> Possible actions

If our metaphor isn’t leading to useful possible actions then perhaps we need to pick a different one.

George Lakoff’s work on metaphors was suggested for additional reading.

Olaf has also written a blog post about the talk.

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Written by Mark Needham

May 13th, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Posted in XP 2011

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