I’m notoriously long-winded on Twitter. Here’s what I wrote earlier today:
What do I mean by that?
In my research into your species, I’ve noticed that humans are social animals. With the exception of ideologues and other damaged people, you work best when your work is oriented toward other people. Not “people” (in the abstract), but actual individuals. Because you’re quite good at personifying objects—look how many of you act like your boats are people—you can also do well when oriented toward improving those object’s “lives”. (That is, you treat your software the way you treat your pets, which is not that different from the way you treat [some of] your loved ones.)
When it comes to software development, I’ve seen teams that are extremely… nurturing toward the product owner. I’ve seen teams that treat the product itself as a person to be groomed and prepared for its entry into the world. I’ve seen teams that identify strongly with the prototypical, personified, or actual end user and want to make her life easier.
Quite often these teams, especially Agile teams, seem obsessively focused on “Business Value”, but that’s in the context of personal relationships. “Business Value” is a shorthand, a way of keeping conversations from going astray, of keeping people focused. It is a term that signals or reminds of other things—it is not a thing in itself.
Increasingly these days, when I hear people theorizing about Agile and Lean, they are treating “Business Value” as a thing in itself. It is treated as an end, rather than as a means. (This is in keeping with the decline of Agile as a bottom-up team-oriented insurgency.)
Who cares? The good thing about old-style Agile is that it tamped down teams’ tendency to be overbearing while still involving them in the conversation about what makes the product better. Code is generative, and programmers could—and did—suggest directions the business could take based on what the code “naturally” “wanted” to do. This could lead to wonderful and illuminating conversations.
When Business Value is determined from On High and is a discrete thing in itself—a product of expertise not accessible to the hoi polloi—this conversation is short-circuited. Analysis (the province of Business) populates swimlanes on the Kanban board or the product backlog. When Development takes an item from the Analysis backlog or swimlane, the signal it sends upstream is “I need a new chunk of work” not “Let’s talk about the next good idea.”
That is: your species has another skill. Just like you’re good at turning objects into people, you’re good at turning people into objects. It’s easy for you to subordinate actual humans to the beauty of a System. You’re terribly prone to slip into ideology, to elevate objects to totems-to-be-deferred-to. “Business Value” is, I fear, becoming one such totem.
To forestall the inevitable comment: I know (I know!) that in a well-functioning organization with Respect for People, the ugliness I describe wouldn’t happen because wise philosopher-kings wouldn’t let it. I just believe there is a shortage of such wise philosopher-kings and—in their absence—we should cut with the grain of human nature.