My friends Dennis and Tom taught me everything I know. One of Dennis‘ favourite themes was the need to separate policy from mechanism. It’s a broad principle applicable to many systems.
The dominant policies in most systems serve business goals, and the mechanisms of technology should serve this greater purpose. The goals aren’t to adhere to the tenets of three-layer architectures, to coupling and cohesion, nor to the Laws of Demeter, but rather to realise end user value and system maintainability. Good design harmonizes policy and mechanism to support harmony across borders of all sorts in the business ecosystems where countless mechanisms interact seamlessly.
Agile embodies one such set of mechanisms. Though this column is called “Agile careers,” my work these days relates more closely to the Toyota Production System (TPS), commonly confounded with “Lean”. Both agile and TPS aim to increase stakeholder value. Agile’s prime mechanism is responsiveness; to this, TPS adds planning. TPS and agile differ in many other mechanisms but they are not entirely incompatible: Scrum ecumenically combines mechanisms from both.
Going further afield, waterfall isn’t wrong; it just fits a different context than we find suitable to either TPS or agile. It may be a rare context where we know requirements up front, but waterfall isn’t fundamentally evil as most agilists would make it out to be. It’s just different.
We tend to harbor beliefs about our design methods with little basis either in science or reality. Our ignorance blinds us to contexts beyond our own, and our myopia to wrongly claim the universality for methods that in fact work only in our own context. We agilists are among the worst of zealots: first in our collective ignorance, and second in our almost arbitrary adherence to fashion. Such adherence is too often blind, lacking understanding of the whys.
In this holiday season it’s important to separate policy from mechanism. It’s a season when the world celebrates the winter solstice, once viewed as a manifestation of the powers greater than us (which stands true but less mysterious than in yesteryear) that brings the wheel of climate around to a new season of weather. The grandeur of the event causes us to confound it with religion, and most celebrations of the season have religious connections: Hannukah (though it was a bit early this year), Christmas and Western New Year, Ed-al-Adha, Diwali, and a few more.
More broadly, religions use the season to showcase the human policy of “peace on Earth, good will to men,” but also celebrate their own mechanisms. The Law in the inspired written word is the primary mechanism for much of Judaism; it is the same for Christians, except the law regenerates as a child. Along with these, Islam emphasizes the mechanisms of devotion and service; in Buddhism, it is self-awareness of how our own actions cause suffering.
All of these all share the same unifying policy; the mechanisms have value in their own right and are practical and local. We too often overlook the bigger picture and wallow in our mechanisms. These lapses are borne out of human insecurity and the need to feel that we control life, rather than aspiring to destiny or the higher calling that transcends mortality.
This holiday season, look beyond your mechanisms to celebrate the winter solstice with fellow world citizens. As in great design, submission to purpose is a matter of humility and gratitude. Find mechanisms that suit your culture and context and by all means celebrate those, too. Just don’t spoil the neighbor’s party with the noise of your own.