Agility and context switching

A Steering manager uses the Law of Diminishing Response as a guide to successful control interventions. When you consider adding some pressure, the key variable to monitor is not people’s performance, but their responsiveness. How are they responding to the existing pressures? When they hear of a new “challenge,” do they drop their head a quarter of an inch and mumble an acceptance under their breath? Do they become annoyed and give a hundred reasons why it can’t be done? Do they show external signs of panic? These are all signs that they’ve reached the point where responsiveness has gone negative, yet they are unable to control their own response.

On the other hand, are people alert and genuinely enthusiastic, able to ask penetrating questions that need answering before accepting the extra work? Can they consciously trade off less important work for high-priority assignments? These are signs that their responsiveness is still above zero, so it’s okay to pile a little more fuel on the fire; but don’t make any assumptions about next time.

Jerry Weinberg, Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking

Last month, Dmitri Zimine posted a small rant against context switching. No big deal–there’s plenty of good arguments against context switching. In this case, the context switch was an “urgent” update to an old project, ignoring the current plans on the ongoing project. In his blog, Dmitri took a hard line against sacrificing the current work to satisfy this “urgent” request.

Joel Spolsky jumped on the fact that Dmitri hadn’t proven the request not to really be urgent, and responded with a rant against Agile development as just another bureauracracy. Joel had his own story of requiring a developer to “suck it up” and jump on an issue to solve an urgent problem. And then Joel implies that Dmitri is a bad manager for talking, in his blog, about one side of the issue.

All in all, it seemed to me that Joel was working with scant evidence, and was taking advantage of a blog entry that was perhaps not expressed as well as might be to denigrate Dmitri and the Scrum process he advocates. But reading the above quote by Jerry Weinberg tells me that there was evidence that Joel (and I) missed in Dmitri’s story.

Dmitri’s reaction is a classic example of someone who has been under too much pressure, for too long, until pressure is an ineffective or counterproductive means of encouraging more productivity. Yes, Joel, Dmitri’s reaction was quite negative. That’s a pretty good indication that this situation is not a sudden discontinuity in an otherwise healthy development environment. Instead, it’s a good bet that the organization in question is operating in a Pattern 1 (Variable or Ad Hoc) or Pattern 2 (Routine) fashion. Both of these patterns can successfully produce software, but neither can do it well in the face of problems.

It’s moving to Pattern 3 (Steering) that allows an organization to choose among its practices and adjust its approach according to the results being produced. And that is the fundamental basis of Agile development. The practices of Scrum or XP are just that, practices you may choose to use. The ultimate agility is in using feedback on how well your practices are working to guide how you adjust the practices you employ.

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