Tag Archives: Momentum

Agility vs Momentum

[ This post is aimed at readers with at least basic understanding of agile product development. It doesn’t explain some of the concepts discussed.]

We often talk of software development as movement across a difficult terrain, to a destination. Organisational change projects are seen as a lightening attack on an organisation, though in reality, have historically proved much slower than the speed of light. Large projects often force through regime change for ‘a leader’. Conventionally, this leader has been unlikely to travel with the team. Someone needs to “hold the fort”. There may be casualties due to friendly firings.

Project Managers make ‘plans’ of a proposed ‘change journey’ from one system state to another, between points in ‘change space’, via the straightest line possible, whilst ignoring the passage of time which makes change possible. Time is seen as distance and its corollary, cost. The language of projects is “setting-off”, “pushing on past obstacles” and “blockers” such as “difficult customers”, along a fixed route, “applying pressure” to “overcome resistance”. A project team is an army on the march, smashing their way through to a target, hoping it hasn’t been moved. Someone must pay for the “boots on the ground” and their travel costs. This mind-set leads to managers who perceives a need to “build momentum” to avoid “getting bogged down”.

Now let us think about the physics:

  •  momentum = mass x velocity, conventionally abbreviated to p = mv.
    At this point it may also be worth pointing out Newton’s Second Law of Motion:
  • force = mass x acceleration, or F = ma
    (Interpretted by Project Managers as “if it gets stuck, whack it hard with something heavy.”)

What about “agile software developments”? There is a broad range of opinion on precisely what those words mean but there is much greater consensus on what agility isn’t.

People outside the field are frequently bemused by the words chosen as Agile jargon, particularly in the Scrum framework:
A Scrum is not held only when a product development is stuck in the mud.
A Scrum Master doesn’t tell people what to do.
Sprints are conducted at a sustainable pace.
Agility is not the same as speed. Arguably, in agile environments, speed isn’t the same thing as velocity either.

Many teams measure velocity, a crude metric of progress, only useful to enable estimation of how much work should be scheduled for the next iteration, often guessed in ‘story-points’, representing relative ‘size’ but in agile environments, everything is optional and subject to change, including the length of the journey.

If agility isn’t speed, what is it? It is lots of things but the one that concerns us here is the ability to change direction quickly, when necessary. Agile teams set off in a direction, possibly with a destination in mind but aware that it might change. If the journey throws up unexpected new knowledge, the customer may wish to use the travelling time to reach a destination now considered more valuable. The route is not one straight line but a sequence of lines. It could end anywhere in change-space, including where it started (either through failing fast or the value of the journey being exploration rather than transportation.) Velocity is therefore current progress along a potentially windy road of variable length, not average speed through change-space to a destination. An agile development is really an experiment to test a series of hypotheses about an organisational value proposition, not a journey. Agile’s greatest cost savings come from ‘wrong work not done’.

Agility is lightweight, particularly on up-front planning. Agile teams are small and aim to carry everything they need to get the job done. This enables them to set off sooner, at a sensible pace and, if they are going to fail, to fail fast, at low cost. Agility delivers value as soon as possible and it front-loads value. If we measured velocity in terms of value instead of distance, agile projects would be seen to decelerate until they stop. If you are light, immovable objects can be avoided rather than smashed through. Agile teams neither need nor want momentum, in case they decide to turn fast.

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Who Pays For a Counter-Culture?

Do you remember the Summer of Love? No, nor me; of course I wouldn’t, because I was there. I wasn’t spaced out on LSD, or making free love with hippy chicks. I was being Seven. I was wearing a flower-power tie with a bottle-green, knobbly leather-buttoned, home-knit cardigan, if dim memories of photographic records are to be believed and I don’t see why anyone would make up such a cruel lie.

What happened to the counter-culture revolution?

The trouble with revolutions is that they break things and when things are broken, thuggery flourishes, alongside the arts, like a Beatnik on a bongo. The problem with dropping out of society, is that you still need to eat and society has the food. Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ tells the story of the gradual slide into petty theft of a band of travelling poets. Most revolutions seem to be instigated by the educated, ungrateful children of the Middle Classes. I guess they are the ones with the time. Every revolution seems to have its poets, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

Punk was both inspired and financed by the dole, just as theater, music and art had been funded by the state since the 60s, when hippies rejected materialism, preferring to live off their wealthy parents or the welfare state. Wars are started by the rich and manned by the great unwashed, like production lines. At least genuine counter-cultures are equal opportunity employers. No-one stands much of a chance.

Karl Marx predicted that people would rise up  when the inequality gap got so wide, civilised behaviour would get sucked into the void but the Russians got impatient and hurried things along, so we don’t know much anger would it take to give UK sufficient momentum to change. Where were the warning shots of poetry this time? Perhaps in rap, where old beatniks, hippies & punks won’t hear them, because they’re still fighting the last older generation.