Hmmm… What does that mean?

On numerous occasions I’ve observed long-time members of the Agile community complain about misinterpretations of what Agile means, and how it performed. Frequently this is precipitated by yet another blog post about how terrible Agile is, and how it damaged the life of the blogger. Sometimes it’s triggered by a new pronouncement of THE way to practice Agile software development, often in ways that are hardly recognizable as Agile. Or THE way to practice software development is declared post-Agile as if Agile is now obsolete and ready to be tossed in the trash bin.

The responses are both predictable and understandable. “If they’d only listen to what we actually said.” “Of course we don’t mean that.” “That’s not the Agile I know.” “Let’s take back Agile from those who misrepresent it!” It’s frustrating when people take terms you use and mangle the ideas that they represent to you into something unrecognizable and undesirable. I empathize with people making that response.

Recently I observed a similar situation where the shoe was on the other foot. I observed a long-time member of the Agile community describe a concept from another community where I’ve spent a lot of time and effort. The description was so far off the mark that I never would have guessed the concept that was being described.

As nearly as I can tell, they had formed a working definition from context, and from that definition had rejected the concept out of hand. They rejected it so forcefully that it seemed to taint their opinion of everyone connected with that concept. Indeed, “taint” may be insufficient, as they expressed their opinion not as “this person believes”¦” or “this person behaves”¦,” but as “this person is”¦.”

I found this profoundly sad from several angles.

The concept is one that I’ve studied and used for years, and have developed layers of understanding that grow deeper over time. The person being dismissed is one I consider a friend and a mentor. It’s someone from whom I’ve learned a great deal over time, and that learning has significantly enriched my life.

The person making these comments is also someone I consider a friend. It distresses me greatly to watch one friend disparage another. I will generally defend the friend who is not there, as I did in this case and have done with regard to the other friend in other situations. This, of course, makes me a surrogate target representing the friend who is not there, and that increases the emotional magnitude of my distress.

The behavior of the friend who was present was so strikingly similar to the behavior I’ve observed that same friend rail against. In the situations where they were defending the concepts of Agile software development from what I considered unwarranted attack, I had felt a close affinity with what they were saying.

Now, seeing the same person taking the opposite role in a different context, I was having a hard time reconciling the difference in their behavior in the two situations. “They should know better than to dismiss a concept they don’t understand!”

Flashback to the year 2000. I was taking a coffee-break with a couple of colleagues at work. We were making jokes, being witty as software developers are wont to do. At one point in the conversation I used the phrase “Extreme Programming” as the punchline to a joke.

One colleague asked, “Extreme Programming? What’s that?”

“I don’t really know.” I had been researching Design Patterns on the Portland Pattern Repository and had seen the term being heatedly discussed, but had considered it noise in the way of my study of Design Patterns. The fact that there were obvious arguments about it, and that the term seemed silly on it face, had lead me to dismiss it out of hand. “I guess I should find out.”

This was the start of my study of Agile software development. I don’t know why my reaction, when confronted with my ignorance, was to enquire more deeply rather than defend my ignorance. I doubt that I react in that manner all the time. That particular reaction, though, has been hugely valuable for me. In many ways, it changed the direction of my life.

It’s not the term used, the name of the concept, that counts. It’s learning the nuances of the concept, starting with “Why would someone advocate this concept?” Assuming the answer to that question is that they’re an idiot leads nowhere productive. Investigating with curiosity often does.

What could I do about people who dismiss valuable concepts out of ignorance? I don’t have a good answer for that. Perhaps ignore the situation is the easiest non-negative response I can take. Arguing never seems to help, in my experience.

But when the shoe is on the other foot and someone suggests something that seems ridiculous at first glance, asking “Hmmm”¦ What does that mean?” has served me better than rejection. At worst it goes nowhere and I’m left with “I don’t know.” Sometimes, however, it has opened my eyes to possibilities that I’d not yet imagined.

5 Replies to “Hmmm… What does that mean?”

  1. George – thanks:
    – I hope I wasn’t the recent friend
    – You and I share a history apparently we were looking at around the same time.
    – Thanks also for reminding me get out of your comfort zone. For me personal work on my leadership skills is pushing me.


  2. I sure hope it wasn’t me. If it ever is, you can call me on it.

    I’ve noticed unnerving parallels between the progression of software development practices and ideas, as you’ve described, and the progression of practices and ideas in other areas of life, e.g. mindfulness, NVC, et cetera.

    I suppose people like to be right.

    1. No, Rob, it wasn’t you.

      You’re right that people like to be right. I’ve certainly fallen prey to the same tendency. But I’m righter when I listen than when I insist on maintaining my initial point of view. It takes time and energy to learn things. No one knows it all, and no one learned it all at once. Learning is infinite.

  3. I’ve noticed the same thing… and sadly, it is sometimes myself doing the “saying”. I hope that I catch myself though, or that my very good friends call me on it – as Rob suggests. I think it is easy to fall into that trap; that we think we understand the concept, but really don’t. Reminder to self — dig deeper …

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