Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Changing Axioms

 (originally posted in march 2008, republished with edits)

I read a mailing list entry in which one fellow (who? I can’t remember!) asked another:

“Do you want to get better at what you’re doing, or find a better way to get the results you want?”

I’m a sucker for a good one-liner. That one had me thinking, and as I’ve had other conversations about innovation, I keep coming back to that line.

In many Agile practices, we work really hard for a week or two, and then hold a retrospective. The purpose of the retrospective is to find ways to work more effectively for the next two weeks

As we develop better software, we also evolve a better team. We may use “tricks” such as tracking our velocity and recording blockages on our ‘waste snake’ to provide data for our decisions, and we use gut feel to evaluate those things that feel like collateral effort to us.

If the practice works, we will see incremental improvement in the team. We will develop ways of avoiding special variations, and we will learn to accept our normal variations. 

It will make us better at the way we do things now.


XP didn’t come from a series of incremental improvements to waterfall processes. 

I wasn’t there when it happened but it seems that they took on a change in axioms. They reimagined the development process.

They didn’t strengthen the contracts between groups but pulled all the decision-makers onto the same team.

They didn’t find more careful ways to preplan the code they were changing, but rather decided to lean radically on volumes of tests.

They didn’t build practices to improve their anticipatory design, they decided instead not to anticipate at all and simplify their design to allow future change. 

At the time, this was radical stuff.

I’m sure there have been many other less-successful process mutations, but there is no evolution without mutation.

The man behind the iPod, iPhone, and MacBookPro has had some less successful product ideas, too. Some exciting high-concept products didn’t make it in the wild. But then some new ideas become category killers.

How do we learn to make the axiomatic changes that lead us to radically better ways to get what we want?

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