Definitions are harmful

Yesterday I attended an amazing talk by Stéphanie Walter at DevFest Nantes. In this talk she presented a series of very “lean” tips and tricks about web design and how to organize the whole process from wireframing to development “the hard way”.  I don’t usually write about webdesign…and this is not going to happen today neither, but something in her talk caught my attention.

At a moment near the end of the talk, Stéphanie described an iterative, incremental process where quick feedback loops allow quick reactions, avoid big re-works, induce a better collaboration and a better communication between everybody and allow creating better design, better user experience, … in opposition to the usual process implemented at her company. After the talk, someone asked “Would Agile help you?” and she answered something like “We tried once but it failed. We designed and developed each part of the site one after the other, but the developer missed some opportunities to make more common CSS and had to rework many things after the fact, etc.” I must say I was very surprised because

  1. what Stéphanie described sounded totally Agile to me. She talked about incrementally creating the design, about very Lean-like ways to avoid wasting time, about better collaboration, etc. So the question was very bizarre to me because she was definitely there already.
  2. She answered no!

Actually this is not the first time I hear or read something like “Agile won’t work for us : what we do is [some kind of definition of Agile]” and I really don’t know what to do about it. I’m not even sure that we should do anything about, apart from being aware of the phenomenon. This is just a funny fact : applying our “Agile” definition failed, let’s drop it completely and go back to our Agile practice.

This whole thing reminds me of a question a colleague asked me some time ago. The team I work in used to practice Scrum, but we improved a couple of things, making us get away from theoretical Scrum and move to a more “kanbanish” process. Since I am supposed to be the Kanban guy, my teammate asked me if we were “doing Kanban now“? I said “Why do you care? Do you really need a new religion?!” Maybe that was a bit a condescending answer, but my point was that we did not need a definition of what our way of working had become. I really wanted to avoid inhibiting improvement initiatives by saying “we are doing method FooBar now”

I think that as long as people feel free to make improvements, as long as they think they are inventing something, then they will keep on improving. But if they happen to reach a point where they recognize something that has already been described, something that has a definition, a concept, they will stick to it and stop inventing. People tend to stop “thinking”, they tend to stop trying things when they “hit” a known, comfortable word.

That is why definitions are harmful : they are very static, very…defined. On the contrary improvement, changing things, is not defined, it’s moving.


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