Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Order and Chaos and the Power/Threat of the unknown

Right as you can tell by the title this blog is about a number of ideas that I feel are related. I'll try and keep it short. What got me blogging was a post on the XP discussion group on yahoo. The discussion was about the newest XP practice "Slack" as mention in XPE2 (XP Explained, 2nd Edition). The question in most of the posts was "what is it?"

The answer was that no one really knew. The one person who should of known (Kent Beck) contributed a link to a forum discussing his fore mentioned book (XPE2), but offered no detail explanation of Slack himself.

I pointed out what seemed obvious to me, which was slack (leaving space in the plan) will mean different things to different teams at different times. So trying to elevate this behavior to a defined "Practice" was a futile exercise. Unfortunately only one person explicitly agreed with me. But I'm sure a few others did too, but chose not to be as vocal.

So why is it that we feel the need to define the indefinable? We are always modeling the world and trying to put it in a box. I think for many of us, that is just the way our brain works (left sided thinkers), Mathematicians, scientists and programmers.

Creative people (poets, artists, writers etc), seem to suffer from this need a lot less. To them something that is inherently indefinable is a source of fascination and interest. They tend not to find such things threatening at all. Concepts such as beauty and elegance resist precise definition, yet many communities quite happily share a common understanding of what these things are. This understanding becomes what is known as culture.

A book that had a profound effect on me was "Language in Thought and Action" by Awakawa. The book describes how thought is intimately linked to language, and how our choice of language can limit our thinking. In the book there is the idea that the label is not the thing. The map is not the territory. We use 'labels' in language all the time as synonyms for ideas, concepts, groups, activities etc. The synonym itself takes on it's own meaning and inference yet any instance of a thing that we choose to refer to using a synonym may have it's own unique characteristics which do not neatly fit into the meaning inferred through the synonym .

So the key is to know when your are using a label, and that the real world is a lot more complex and diverse. An example of this that comes to mind and is related to software is the CMM. The CMM is an attempt to model software development organisations. It identifys Key process Areas (KPA's) and their relationships with each other. Each KPA is assigned to a role that must exhibit concrete abilities.

As part of my training as a certified CMM assessor, I was exposed to a computer model of the CMM. It was great you could see the effect of changing abilities within a given KPA on other KPA's and on the process as a whole. Logically the model made a lot of sense. The big missing gap though was that people and organisations often defy logic.

So within the CMM a group of demonstrable KPA's represented an organisation who's output was repeatable on a per team basis (Level 2), an addtional group of KPA's defined an organisation whose output was repeatable and consistent across the organisation (Level 3). The next level of maturity, level4 , contained KPA's that demonstrated that an organisation could quantitatively measure it's performance as a pre-requisite to quantitative process improvement.

Unfortunately, the moment you expose this simplified model to real world situations it immediately begins to fall apart. For instance is it not possible that an organisation may have a single team that have demonstrably delivered repeatedly, using quantitative techniques. In such a scenario, the set of abilities demonsrated may cut across maturity levels, they may even cut through KPA's, leaving the CMM model in taters.

In a sense XP has fallen into the same trap as the CMM. When first introduced to XP I was told that you needed to do all the XP Practices together. I was told that they are all related and inter-dependent on each other. So after 4 years real world experience, XP has been shown to have gaps. Despite doing all the practices, there are still issues and problems that XP doesn't address. Is this surprising? So what is the solution? Well for Kent Beck it was add one more XP value (respect) and an additional practice (Slack).

The model is flawed, so just add to the model. There is another way. That is to remember that the model is just that a model. The real world is a lot more complex and diverse. The label is not the thing. The map is not the territory.

I could blog (rant) some more. But in summary, as developers we need to get better at using the other side of our brain. Not knowing shouldn't be threatening, a state that should be extinguished quickly, with ever more elaborate models. No, not knowing is just part of the rich fabric of life. In fact there is power in the unknown. In acknowledging that there isn't a simple formula, order can be found in chaos. Examples of this exist in philosophy, especially eastern philosophy. So Zen sayings like "Knowing without knowing" really do have meaning. Higher order thinking can help us to gain understanding in an inherently complex and chaotic world. All we need is the courage to embrace the power of the unknown.

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