In the late 1980s while working for IBM Research, I visited the IBM team responsible for designing improvements to the SNA computer communications protocol. My goal was to see if I could find any way to make their work more productive, to “make things go better”, in the most general phrasing.
I saw them sketching communications protocols on the whiteboards, and then spend months programming up those ideas in order to test how they worked. Of course they didn’t, so they were back at the whiteboards again, sketching up the next idea.
What struck me was that the humans could understand the meanings of the lines and notations on the whiteboard, but no computer could. My bright idea was to make a sort of artificial intelligence program that would interpret the whiteboard sketches and immediately construct a simulator for them as they drew each line. Being able to simulate their ideas immediately should save them months of throwaway programming.
I spent three years with a team and made the simulator. What struck me was that they were delighted to use the smart protocol sketching tool we provided, but wouldn’t use the simulator. Strange.
I followed that project up with research on the rate at which teams use design simulation tools in general. The short answer is, they don’t, so I gave up that avenue of research.
In 1991, I was taken in by the IBM Consulting Group to create a methodology for object-oriented programming projects, Smalltalk and C++ at the time, later, Java. I was sent on a research tour of projects to find out how successful projects worked. Once again, the open topic was, “how can we get successful projects?”, an open question.
From 1991 to 2015, I worked on methodologies and project management strategies, along the way co-authoring the Agile Manifesto, the Project Management Declaration of Interdependence, the Crystal family of methodologies, most notably Crystal Clear, and writing books on project survival, agile software development, use cases, methodologies, and my PhD dissertation on “People and Methodologies in Software Development”.
What slowly became so clear I could no longer avoid it was that to the extent people collaborate and share ideas and information, the project goes better. To the extent it degrades, the project degrades accordingly. Tools and processes are a cover that allow management to pretend they are paying attention, when they aren’t.
So in 2015, I stripped off all the coverings and put down the only things I know that really move the needle on delivering a project:
Collaborate, to get a wider range of initial ideas, to correct mistakes in those ideas in the fastest way possible, and to improve the morale and energy of the workers.
Deliver, in small stages, in various ways, to get feedback, to find the errors of conception and execution that only the real world can provide.
Reflect, examining both data and emotions, to gain insights as to what you want, what is going well, what needs adjustment.
Improve, typically in small steps, everything: the collaboration, the delivery, the reflecting and even the manner of improving.
Attending to these four words is what moves the needle, as far as I can tell. There is no place to hide, there are no ceremonies to hide behind. There is no organizational restructuring being called for to suck up time and money, no role re-definition to waste education dollars on. Just improve the quality of the collaboration, whatever your structure and role definitions are. Deliver for feedback, whatever your macro-processes require. Take time to pause, and reflect, introspect, and make constant small improvements everywhere.
At the same time, this is both simple enough and yet demands the hardest thing from the executives – to pay attention to their people and to get their ideas examined early by the market.
As I look at organizations and projects now, after 30 years of study, it seems to me like all else is fluff, doomed to squander money. That’s why all my energy these days is just these four words: collaboration, deliver, reflect, improve.
I am Dr. Alistair Cockburn and these are my agile-thoughts
2021 © Saint Petersburg, Florida, USA by Dr. Alistair Cockburn
Co-author of the Agile Manifesto, author of the award-winning books “Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game” and “Writing Effective Use Cases,” co-founder of the International Consortium for Agile, and creator of the Heart of Agile concept.
His specialties include organizational psychology, project management, agile methodologies, requirements gathering and object-oriented design.
Inspiration for some, role model for others. Someone who truly enjoys people and life: he loves traveling, sports. skiing, dancing—even Tango—, diving, languages and poetry.