Agile Fables

Aesop_woodcut_Spain_1489

I love a good fable. The kind that Aesop used to write with animals acting out human morality tales. Of course, if you do the research, you quickly find out that Aesop didn’t write most (if any of the fables) we ascribe to him and like Shakespeare he probably never existed. I don’t let reality like that spoil my appreciation for Aesop’s work.

For Scrum Masters, Project Managers, and fans of Getting Things Done there is nothing like the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. The slower, but diligent tortoise wins the race over the quicker, but arrogant hare. The only problem Agile process lovers have with this fable is that it’s not true! The tortoise (Waterfall) always loses to the Hare (Agile).

But we have a paradox: Most chickens (managers, stakeholders, investors) and even some pigs (engineers) agree with Aesop! The tortoise always beats the hare because the tortoise makes a plan and executes it well, even if he is a bit slow. (If the tortoise fails it’s because a chicken yells at her to hurry up and so she speeds up and screws up. Call it the “Fable of the Spineless Tortoise and Impatient Chicken.”)

To resolve this paradox I’d like to tell the “Fable of the Tortoise, Hare, and Monkey.”

A Hare one day ridiculed the Microsoft Project plans and change control documents of the Tortoise. The latter, laughing, said: “Though you be swift as Google Go, I will beat you in a race to deliver working software.” The Hare, deeming her assertion to be simply impossible, assented to the proposal; and they agreed that the Fox (VP of Product Management) should choose the requirements, and define the release. On the day appointed for the race they started together. The Tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady build cycle straight to the end of the course. The Hare, trusting to his native widgets, cared little about unit testing and user feedback, and lying down under his desk after long night of coding, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and logging on as fast as he could, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was demoing to the Fox.

But the story doesn’t end yet…

By the time the Hare caught up with the Tortoise and the Fox he saw the Tortoise slam her laptop shut and slump away. The Hare asked for an explanation. “Why didn’t he Tortoise win?” The Fox explained that what the Tortoise delivered was very late to market and the requirements were were out of date. “But,” the Fox said, “Happily for all, the Monkey has delivered working working software that meets most of our customer’s high priority needs!”

“Monkey? Where the hell did the Monkey come from?” Exclaimed Hare.

“Ah yes,” sighed the Fox, “While you were crashed out under your desk, the Monkey came and delivered a working prototype. I told her that it wasn’t quite right so the Monkey went away and came back a little while later with a revised prototype. It took a few tries but eventually the Monkey got it right and won the race. In fact the Monkey’s working prototypes helped me understand what I was asking for. You see when I gave the requirements to you and the Tortoise, there were a few stories I missed and during the race a new competitor entered the market. Even if you hadn’t fallen asleep you would not have won as I had to keep moving the goal. Our customer, Mr. Zeno, is a hard man to please!

Just in case you’re not into reading between the lines here’s my analysis of this fable (since I wrote it my analysis should hopefully be accurate).

The Hare lost the race because he had to fight the Law of the Handicap of a Head Start. This principle states that pioneers and innovators lack a clear signal. They are out in front, they have no one to follow, and so their advantage becomes a handicap. Often the first movers are stuck building their software on immature technology that becomes obsolete before it is finished. The United States has this problem with its Internet and telecommunications infrastructure. We got there first but now we are lagging in connectivity. The Hare development process, starts out fast and light but never stops to get feedback–its one big long sprint. A lot of code is written. Little of it is ever used.

The Tortoise lost the race because we no longer live in the world of the 4th century BC. Slow and steady hasn’t been a winning strategy for a long time. The goal keeps moving. Actually the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno wrote his own fable where he counters Aesop. In Achilles and the Tortoise, the Hare-like Achilles can’t catch up to the Tortoise (who has been given a head start) because every time Achilles reaches the spot where the Tortoise was, the Tortoise has moved on. This is the problem of accomplishing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. Somehow we do it every day (but if you really think about it your brain hurts). The Tortoise development process, creates dichotomies every step of the way: Design, Development, Test, Release, Post Release, et etc. Dichotomies are full of infinite regressions and thus are never finished.

The Monkey won the race because he used an Agile development process. First the Monkey took a prioritized subset of from the list of infinite tasks (and every project has a never ending number of bugs and feature requests) and delivered them to the Fox (Product owner) as working software. It was was rough but the Fox had the results in plenty of time to give feedback and course corrections. Thus the Monkey was not subject to the Law of the Handicap of a Head Start. Second the Monkey kept repeating these short sprints of implementing the high priority tasks and getting feedback on a real working system so that as the goal moved she could quickly change course. The Monkey development process, done right, treats every sprint as a whole, where no dichotomies are created. The software is released to the user, it does what it does, feedback is gathered, and the process is repeated until a winner is declared.

One reply on “Agile Fables”

Comments are closed.