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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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The Tyranny of the Urgent

Our worst decisions and actions are those without which society would have been better off. To publish a newspaper headline announcing that Truman lost to Dewey. The decision to invade at the Bay of Pigs. These have their equally headline-worthy engineering analogues: The decision to launch Challenger. The 2008 decision to release Heathrow’s T5 baggage-handling software. The decision to jump off the burning platform to abandon Symbian and take another tack.

Most languages are littered with sayings that encourage snap decisions. Carpe diem is an early one. A stitch, in time, saves nine dates from the 1700s. Hindsight is 20/20 is more contemporary. We have a few like haste makes waste, but on balance, urgency seems to be the call of Western culture.

We all need to make snap decisions now and then. If you’re crossing the road and you’re about to be hit by a bus, it’s not time to do root cause analysis. Life sometimes demands quick action. On the other hand, I see how ever-shortening decision horizons take an increasing toll on everyday life as described above. When urgency becomes a way of life, bad things happen.

The software agilists of the past decade have tapped into this concern for urgency. It owes in part to a more demanding market with shortened time frames in a smaller world, whose roots in turn lie in growing automation (see Autonomation). Why do we want to get things faster? Because we can. An artificial need arises from the economic system we have created. The world wouldn’t have stopped if people hadn’t snapped up all the digital watches from the shelves when they appeared: Fashion prevailed to create demand (see Fads). Urgency can be driven by the frenzy to be first to publish, or when American patent culture emphasizes first-to-file instead of first-to-invent. Few inventions, except perhaps the washing machine, have been so urgent that society would have suffered to wait another year, decade, or century for them.

Agile development easily devolves into management by crisis. Perhaps the nascent pop agile management style was an inevitable reaction to the over-planning sins of the 1980s. Early agilists embraced change — for its sake — rather than thinking. They co-opted “Defer decisions to the last responsible moment” as the order of the day.  The original sense — as used in the Lean community — was that “the responsible moment” is that time beyond which a given decision reduces options for future decision making. That point comes very early. Scrum — which predates agile — embraces this informed perspective. To be able to manage these decision points should motivate careful forethought. Early agilists saw will and flexibility as carrying the day. There is much doing, but little thinking, in the Agile Manifesto.

The World War II general Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “I find when going into battle, that plans are useless;  planning, however, I find to be indispensable.” We confuse planning with blind execution. The Agile Manifesto actually admonishes us to “respond... to change over following a plan.” It doesn’t discourage planning. Have a plan. It reduces the chance that a given decision will need to be urgent.

We live in an engineering world where the market lurches forward on faddish product differentiations that will be of no consequence five years from now, let alone a century from now. Those that succeed in the long term take bold moves: the Steve Jobs of the world willing to make a ding in the universe. The rest are likely to find themselves on a burning platform.

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Great article, it's bold to write such statements against the current.

Posted on 12/4/12 11:35 PM.

I have always equated agile to fragile. Built to be broken.

Society appears to feed on crisis, artificial as they maybe. The oil crises, the mortgage crisis and today; the fiscal cliff.

We live off headlines. We make decisions based on tag lines. We communicate in 140 characters. We are conserving our thinking and alphabet to prevent global warming!

Great article!!!

Posted on 12/5/12 12:58 PM.

just now I am reading "Lean Architecture for Software Agile Development" and this article is the litmus test of what I am reading. Simply a great article!

Posted on 12/6/12 10:39 AM.

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