Avoid dogma when herding cats

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Cockburn got it right that when it comes to creative teams, people are primary. And the jokes you hear about “herding cats” are funny because they’re painfully close to the truth — it’s an insight to embrace.

When it comes to large-scale, creative engineering, the right processes for all the various teams in an organization depends on both people and situation — both of which are constantly changing. You can’t just adopt a particular process and be done with it.

So really the only “bad process” is one that doesn’t provide framework to reflect and permission to adapt. Nothing else is sacrosanct. XP and TSP take some heat, because they’re both strong in “framework to reflect” but weaker in “permission to adapt”.

But it’s also a mistake to dismiss XP, TSP, or any other system that’s clearly working for huge numbers of people. Every methodology can be the right one for certain teams for certain parts of their existence.

And XP or TSP can sometimes be a better starting point for teams than something like Scrum, because they’ve chosen “default” tools out of the toolbox for you and Scrum hasn’t. I’ve seen teams at big companies like Microsoft adopt Scrum and suffer for months for lack of a strong definition of “done”. For some, TDD or pair programming might have been a great gateway to a healthy state. Why suffer, when XP or TSP has done a great job of defining a working, holistic system?

But the danger — the one Scrum avoids with its simplicity and intentional focus on just the reflective core of the engineering system — is that the default tools in a methodology like XP or TSP are unlikely to be 100% right for your team. And adopting them all with a single big-bang process change is fraught with risk. Yet the methodology may create a mindset on the team where that’s the only way — not encouraging the team to improve and adapt slowly and continuously. So the team breaks down, and they fall back on the obvious practices (waterfall thinking) that are ill-matched to creative engineering.

So that’s why XP and TSP are great, but starting with something simple like Scrum can be great advice. That, and avoid dogma when helping your cats to herd themselves.