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Jim Coplien
MAY 09, 2015 01:13 AM
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I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t, at some point, felt a little guilty about putting off some chore. I’ve been there, too, I often rationalize procrastination by claiming that I work well under pressure. I actually think that’s true sometimes.
Putting off chores is one thing; putting off decisions is another. Hey, they’re just decisions so delay doesn’t hurt anything, right? I can wait until I’m forced to make the decision and make it then. Much like the “working under pressure” excuse, I can justify such an approach with a “no harm, no foul” attitude.
Such is exactly the posture of the agile crowd. There is a catch phrase for it which we’ll examine in a moment: “defer decisions to the last responsible moment.” The agile folks add an interesting twist (with a grain of truth) that the later one defers a decision, the more information there will be on which to base the decision.
Alarmingly, this agile posture is used either as an excuse or as an admonition to temper up-front planning. The attitude perhaps arose as a rationalisation against the planning fanaticism of 1980s methodologies. It’s true that time uncovers more insight, but the march of time also opens the door both to entropy and “progress.” Both constrain options. And to add our own twist, acting early allows more time for feedback and course correction. A stitch in time saves nine. If you’re on a journey and you wait until the end to make course corrections, when you’re 40% off-course, it takes longer to remedy than if you adjust your path from the beginning. Procrastination is the thief of time.
The seeds of this agile perspective lie in a distrust of the false omniscience of 1980s design methods — an omniscience that believed in the triumph of science over nature. Examples included the Tennessee Valley Authority’s project to control flooding which, according to diffusion theory studies, destroyed the periodic renewal of flood plain farmland with silt-carrying flood waters. But the Lean folks saw things differently. Lean held the perspective of a last responsible moment: the moment beyond which time takes away one’s ability to influence an outcome. It’s important not only to make decisions but to take action before that moment.
And here’s the rub. The lean people started by listing all the decisions that they anticipated making over the lifetime of the project and lined them up in a decision structure matrix — a way of structuring dependencies between decisions. Planning became a matter of pulling action items forward so that no “responsible moments” were violated. The term “defer” was never part of this worldview (Glenn Ballard, Positive versus Negative Iteration in Design,
The modern agile view is not based on pulling decisions forward but rather on pushing them away. Hence we have the phrase: “defer decisions to the last responsible moment.” I wasn’t there at the moment in history when agilists exapted the phrase from lean, but I suspect it was based on a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding has become policy, and the foundation of a method in its own right.
How can this work at all? If I am right agile projects should be failing left and right! So, how do they survive? Rework. Agile has given itself an escape hatch so that, in the absence of planning, we label even knowable requirements as “emergent” and we refactor the code. Reading the lean critiques of rework and the agile praise of refactoring, I have a hard time seeing the difference.
Procrastination is the thief of time.
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