Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Law of Unintended Consequences

This is big topic, but today I want to talk about just one small aspect: the unintended consequence of command-and-control work environments. There is a persistent myth in the software business that runs something like this: if we plan every detail of our product, assign the details to individuals, monitor and track each individual's progress on each task, make sure the load is balanced across individuals and always at the maximum (or just a little more) that each individual can deliver, and if we put in place sufficient incentives and penalties to make sure that individuals follow the plan exactly, the end result will be a perfectly executed project.

Aside from the obvious difficulties of planning a future over which we mere mortals have neither control nor even foreknowledge, there is a massive gotcha lurking in the shadows of this defined, command-and-control approach that is the result of the Law of Unintended Consequences: malicious obedience.

Malicious obedience is a common behavioral response to situations in which individuals know that they have no control over what they work on, how they work, or the outcome they produce. When the incentive/penalty structure emphasizes obedience over all else, people learn very quickly to do precisely what they are told and nothing more, even if they know perfectly well that what they are doing is not the best way to achieve the end goal, which in the software industry is a working, valuable product. A common example, and one that I have experienced on more than one occasion, is when developers write code exactly as specified even when they know that what they're coding is incompatible with some other part of the system, either because of an initial design failure or a requirements change that did not propagate to their part of the system in time. Since command-and-control values obedience over all else, the developers in question had no choice but to follow the plan, write the code as specified, generate waste, and damage the overall project. "We were just following orders, sir."

Since a successful project is (or should be) the actual goal, the cure is to apply Agile principles and practices throughout. When people choose their own daily tasks, freely commit as members of a team to deliver a Sprint backlog, and have control over how they implement a solution, malicious obedience is no longer an issue. To put it another way, removing the compulsion to follow arbitrary orders from the equation eliminates the possibility of malicious obedience. When people are empowered to take ownership of their work, the Law of Unintended Consequences breaks down, resulting in innovative solutions, sterling quality, and timely feature delivery.

All for now....


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