There’s been some discussion on the XP Yahoogroup about the practice of “blocking” in order to protect an Agile team in a non-agile corporation. I’d gotten rather behind in my reading, and came into the middle of the discussion. I’ve just now tracked this discussion back to a post by Scott Ambler, where he says,

This is a great example of something that I call blocking, where you produce the paperwork, attend the meetings, pretend to care, … to make it look as if you’re following the “official process”.

Scott is responding to a mention of the use of PERT on the Polaris submarine project. Scuttlebutt says that PERT was deemed a great success in managing the Polaris project, but in reality the PERT charts were reverse-engineered from more seat-of-the-pants management techniques. As the stories go, this “scientific” management technique wowed the Congressional oversight committees, and such techniques have been the backbone of government contracting oversight ever since.

Scott refers to his Software Development (now Dr. Dobbs) article, “Running Interference.” Now having read this article, I see that the word “blocking” comes from American football, and refers to direct resistance in order that others may “run with the ball” and make forward progress. A long and frequently interesting thread ensued (and continues, at this writing) on the ethics of such blocking. In this article, I’d like to skirt the ethical issue, which ultimately must be decided by each person, and look at some pragmatic aspects.

First of all, note the reported outcome of the Polaris project and PERT. If it is true that the project did not use PERT to manage the project, but merely to keep the project auditors at bay, it’s quite ironic that the end result was strengthening the belief that those with oversight of a project should direct how the project is managed. The long-term effect has been more intrusive auditing, not less.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. If we fool people, we shouldn’t be surprised that they draw some unwarranted conclusions. Would this same principle not apply in the situation Scott describes? If you merely produce documents and attend review meetings of them without any regard to what’s actually happening on the team, won’t this reinforce the belief that such documents and meetings are necessary?

I note that Scott says,

Subterfuge should be a last resort, but if you’ve failed all other attempts (education and communication foremost among them) to combine an agile team with a rigid power structure, blocking may be your only alternative to maintain the agility necessary to reach your goal.

Clearly he’s a little uncomfortable with this tactic, himself, though he doesn’t see it as unethical. What, however, does it mean to say that we have “failed at communication?” Doesn’t this mean that we’ve given up trying to communicate? Otherwise it would be more accurate to say we have “not yet communicated.” In other words, Scott is saying something like, “We’ve tried some things and those things haven’t produced the results we wanted, so we’re going to ignore the spirit of the requests made of us and just meet the letter of those requests. The people asking for these things no longer matter to us. They’re just resisting a change that we know is right.”

I’ve written on dealing with resistant people, before. I quite understand why Scott would suggest going around such people rather than working with them. But I would urge him, as I still need to urge myself, to resist that temptation. Not because it may be unethical, but because it may be counter-productive.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a mistake to produce the documents and go to the meetings that are mandated, even if you don’t find them valuable for progress of the team. Nor am I suggesting that it’s a good idea to give up practices that are working for you just because someone has asked for something different. What I am suggesting is that merely creating the appearance of complying, without attempting to actually comply to the requests, is an uncomfortable zone for me. I would rather take what I find I need to do to be successful and translate it into terms that are comfortable and acceptable to others. Yes, that can take a lot of time and effort. Yes, I may ultimately fail at that effort. But if I fail, have I done any worse than if I consciously fake the effort?

And if I don’t fail, I’ve opened the possibility of real change. If I successfully translate what I’m doing that I think is right into a format that can be understood by the powers-that-be who are demanding business-as-usual, then perhaps I can show them the advantages of what I’m doing.

And are the demands being made really unreasonable? Sure, they may look unreasonable from the point of view of what I know, but I doubt that they’re being made just to be unreasonable. Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment, and ask what would it look like if the request did have value to the requester. What would that value be? What would have to be true for this request to make sense? This understanding is essential for a successful translation. Of course, it is a lot more work than just going through the motions. But when I take the time and energy to do this, I invariably find that the request is not arbitrary, from the point of view of the requester. The request is just a manifestation of what they really want.

I’ve never been a fan of the martial arts, but I’ve learned an Aikido phrase from Jerry Weinberg that’s useful in many situations: “Center; enter; turn.”

Center: be aware of yourself, who you are, and what you want to accomplish.

Enter: be aware of the other. Enter their world and stand beside them, rather than in opposition.

Turn: together with them, turn their energy in a more effective direction.

When I can do that, I’m much more effective than when I try to block them.

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Comments (5) to ““Blocking””

  1. Don Gray has chimed in on this topic.

  2. The Carnival of the Agilists has posted a new entry featuring a pointer to this article.

  3. Articles…

    ??????? What’s “block” means in Agile…

  4. It’s not an Agile term, but one borrowed from American football. Players will block other players with their body (actually running into them) to allow another player time and space to run or throw the ball.

  5. […] Have you ever read something that bothered you, but couldn’t put your finger on exactly why? I found myself in that position after I read George Dinwiddie’s recent blog entry about Blocking. […]

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