Saturday, December 10, 2005

XPDAY5 - Anti-Intellectualism and Dead Fish

Tim Listers keynote at XPDay this year was an impassioned plea for people to wake up and use their brains. An example of "brain-less" practice that he described was a team that continued to provide effort estimates to two decimal places even though their estimates where consistently between 100-200% out. Anyone who knows anything about maths (Tim's father) could clearly see the inconsistency between the estimating accuracy and precision.

So how does this type of thing happen? How do supposedly intelligent people keep making such fndamental mistakes? Organisational culture has a lot to do with it, coupled with the inherent difficulty of accurately predicting software development. The stats for software development failures are abysmal. Most projects fail and those that don't are either late or deliver less functionality then promised. Only a small percentage actually succeed.

Tim spoke about anti-intellectualism. People not wanting to know. I've experienced this too. If you propose an intellectually sound approach to tackling a complex question often the response is negative. It is almost as though people do not want to think. Worst still, it is though they are scared that if they did think things through, that they could come up with answers that aren't palatable.

The consequence of this willful ignorance is what Tim Lister refers to as the dead fish. Dead fish projects are projects where everyone knows that they are going to fail, but no one actually comes out and says it. The dead fish stays there smelling and everyone blistfully ignores it. Tim said that you can sense the mood in Dead fish teams, there is an atmosphere, a stench that is perceivable straight away. People know when they've been set up to fail, and it shows in their body language and general lack of enthusiasm.

Tim did a good job at identifying the problem, but didn't offer solutions. My experience is that telling people that there is a dead fish doesn't always help. Usually by that time, many people feel implicated and vunerable. Hearing the problem described so eloquently though was powerful. It has definately motivated me to do more about dead fish in the future.

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