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The Trouble With Systems

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Matt Heusser has written a new piece about the problems inherent with excessively detailed systems and processes, and how this relates to agile software development. According to Matt, the trouble with rigid systems is threefold:
  1. Modeling system effects is hard
  2. The more complex the system, the more variables
  3. The more variables, the more interactions, reactions, and unintended consequences
The result, says Matt, is that in trying to specify everything, overly-complicated systems aren't able to meaningfully specify anything. So how does this apply to agile software development? Matt offers CMM as an example of the overly-specified system:
This is a huge part of the problem that CMM(I) and ISO 9000 have. They want to be one-page descriptions that say "Do the Right Thing" or "Do Good Work", but you need to define "Good" and "Right", and to try to do that... while dealing with all of the variables in software development is, well ... hard.
Agile has been criticized for not being sufficiently prescriptive, but many agile methods - Scrum in particular - assert that rigid definitions are the problem and not the solution. From "The Philosophy of Scrum":
Scrum states that the systems development process is an unpredictable, complicated process that can only be roughly described as an overall progression. Cookbook, step-by-step approaches do not work because they aren't adequately defined and don't cope with the unpredictability of systems development.
To summarize, Matt quotes from software testing expert Michael Bolton:
If your project has dug itself a hole, your process ain't gonna pick up the shovel.

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