Monday, May 01, 2006

The Mystique of Software Craftsmanship, Part 4

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Forth Discipline : Question Traditions

No workplace is free of traditions: in fact, establishing traditions is inherent to our human nature hence computer-related workplaces, whether they deal with software development or IT operations, are also bound to some forms of traditionalism.

We should become very aware of these traditions and by no means be afraid to question them. Very often a tradition acts as disabling force instead of simply being a neutral vector of knowledge. The same way they can turn a living faith into a dead religion, traditions can weight on decision making process and orient them into cumbersome or counterproductive acts.

There are many patterns under which traditions could take place in your working environment: it is crucial to get used to expose them. Here are three examples, that you can use as starting points for your inquiry:

  • the “self-perpetuating pain”, where the cause of a problem or the limitation of a system is long time gone, but the workarounds or constrictions that were put in place remain - unquestioned,

  • the infamous “we have always done it that way”, where the reason of a particular choice has been forgotten and, or more accurately, hence becomes impossible to change,

  • the “myth of the mountain”, where a practice, a system or a person is considered impossible to change or improve simply because communication as given way to prejudice.

Of course, we all know that questioning practices that have reached the status of habits is a very difficult endeavor, if not a risky one. Questioning a tradition goes far beyond the act of merely discussing a decision or a piece of knowledge: it sometimes touches the very fundamentals of an organization and will instinctively be considered as being destructive.

In the course of your adventure through traditional aspects of your organization, you will quickly find out that the most virulent supporters of a particular habit will be the ones who suffer the most of it: for them, enforcing such a painful tradition is close to the psychological trait known as capture-bonding.

Knowing the powerful psychological forces at stake in such a process, a wise craftsman will become a cunning tactician: he will avoid a direct confrontation and favor a more subtle approach, like systematically undermining practices that are peripheral to the targeted tradition or evangelizing intermediaries who can approach its fervent keepers.


alex said...


How interesting! I just love posts like this one: they highlight the complexity of change, which is perhaps the area of least mastery in many projects, especially of the IT kind.

The stronger the tie between software tools and human organizations, the more important psychology becomes. Yes, we humans are often victims of our habits; habits are just one aspect of what I see as a marvellous capability of living entities: learning. In fact, habits are those things we do automatically when we have made a more or less conscious decision to stop learning about a particular thing; that's where the habit takes over. And that is really strong in organizations, especially those requiring people to execute without questioning or providing no incentives to perform better.

Shared habits become traditions. Traditions are conveyed more or less explicitly through myths, stories, rumours and... well, procedures, perhaps a modern and much less poetic form of a tool designed to help human organizations do more of the same thing.

In a changing world, the ability to question established ways of doing is rather a good thing. So long as common sense prevails in assessing the tradition: change is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And it takes human sensitivity to free human organizations from the bounds of habits that have become shackles rather than tools for improved effectiveness...

I am not sure you need to be cunning, but I am definitely positive you must be able to establish a relationship with people, more or less fearful and conservative individuals, if you are to convince them that change is desirable and possible for them. The first step though is to build awareness of the limits, which requires patience and perseverance I believe. And owing to thousands of years of storytelling and exposure to symbolic representations to reality, we humans need to go through rituals to change in a meaningful and useful manner... There would be so much to say here... And the Stockholm syndrome is one of the (rather sad) dimensions as you correctly point out.

Interesting post. Thanks.

David Dossot said...

Alex, many thanks for your comment! This Mystique is trully becoming a collective work ;-)