Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is it right?

After my JAOO Australia presentation on agile values a friend of mine referred me to Barry Schwartz's TED talk about Practical Wisdom and asked me if I thought there was any relationship between the agile values and what Schwartz was saying.

I think that philosophically there's a great deal of overlap. Among other great things, Schwartz says that over-reliance on rules reduces us to mediocrity. In "The Rise of the Chaordic Age" Dee Hock says "Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior." Same message. Often these rules exist because we've "learned from the past" - because someone once made a mistake that we'd like to avoid in future we add an extra rule, and then another, and then another, until we are so constrained by the sludge of regulations that exceptional behaviour has moved beyond exceptional to impossible.

One of the things that the agile movement has said is that people inevitably make mistakes, but rather than eliminate the possibility of mistakes we should reduce the probability and the cost of the consequences. But if you don't trust people to do the right thing then this seems insufficient, and you start to add more rules, and you end up with the dogmatic flavours of agile - "you MUST do XXX or YYY". That's not the way to get the benefits that agile development promises.

Some people will say that adding rules is the wrong approach, and what you should do is create incentives instead, and let people establish specific behaviours based on those incentives. No stupid rules for these folks. But both Schwartz and Alfie Kohn (author of "Punished By Rewards") argue that any incentive scheme can be subverted by bad will, and that they send the message that you should "do the right thing" not simply because it is the right thing, but because you will be rewarded for doing it. Kohn in particular talks about the need to continually increase incentives and what happens if the incentive is removed.

So what should we do instead? Here Schwartz quotes Barack Obama - "We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right". We need to celebrate moral exemplars, to eulogise moral acts rather than financial acts, and encourage the development of moral will and moral skill. It may be faint to many, but I hear the echo of Kent Beck's values of transparency, accountability and responsibility.

I believe in all of this at a personal level. I believe it is consistent with the values of the agile community, as I understand them. And I'm very clear that these are the values of my employer, Cogent Consulting, otherwise I'd dissolve the company.


  1. ...doesn't it always lead back to Kant?

    Great post.

  2. My knowledge of philosophy is too shallow to comment. One day I should probably try to fix that.