Rules, Rules Everywhere and Never an Agilist in Sight!

By Brian Lucas

This one is dedicated to my dear friend Pat – always a friend in deed!”

“There are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something.”Thomas Edison

This is one of my favorite quotes of all time and it is particularly poignant in our agile era. Why is it that some people are the opposite of Edison and always seem to take a good concept and rule it into perdition?  Perhaps it is as Thoreau says, “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.”  So let me begin with a maxim and not a rule, “If you are following the rules, you are not agile!”
I was with a couple of friends on a late summer’s outing one day[1].  As we were munching on pan cornbread with wildflower honey and fire-toasted slab bacon chunks dipped in my secret butter-bourbon, sweet onion sauce and drinking Sumatran coffee with chicory, an argument started.  They are both IT professionals that teach scrum and the simplest way to start an argument with IT people that teach an indoctrinating thought is to ask a question[2].  The notorious interrogatory was, “What rules do you follow in Scrum?”

The conversation erupted into an cacophony (it is amazing how two IT people can sound like a room full) of the obscure points of working agreements, communication plans, what should and should not be in a wiki, rules for who speaks and listens in meetings, late penalties, time boxing and what the responsibilities of a scrum master were.  I almost foolishly joined in on that one; instead I lit a cigar and took a few puffs.  In the back of my mind, the lyrics from the Five man electrical band song, “Signs”, began to play.  “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.  Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Finally, it devolved into paired programming and collective code ownership.  As the discussion got heated, I grabbed the heavy cast iron skillet still hot from the fire and threatened to administer some anesthesia to them both in the Moe Howard fashion[3].  That got their attention, so I said neither one could honestly claim to be agile.  They were both profoundly shocked and the ensuing silence delighted me to no end.
Why did I make that statement[4]?  The answer is rules are in direct conflict with being agile!

As Thomas Edison stated so eloquently in his simple and direct expression, following rules is a determent to accomplishing something.  Often the greatest advances are when people break the rules.  For example, look at the following list of people:

All are noted for making significant advances to various areas of thought whether science and technology, literature and art or military tactics and business[5].  If you think this is a long list, guess again.  These are just the ones that are on the tip of my tongue.  There are many, many more and some I know I should not have missed.  The point is they were all notorious rule breakers.

Why did they break the rules?  For one thing rules are often outdated.  Take the QWERTY[6] keyboard I am typing on, for instance.  Every enterprise operates with a set of written and unwritten rules. More often than not these are self-imposed and accepted without questioning.  That is why breakthroughs often come from the newcomer to an industry, who through a new perspective or sheer ignorance does not follow the rules.

Case in point, one of my favorite rule breakers is Richard Branson.  When he launched Virgin Atlantic, he challenged American Airlines, British Airways and Pan Am.  They represented the ‘old boy’ network and played by the same rules[7].  So what did Branson do?  First he eliminated “first class” and provided first class service to all business passengers.  He provided luxury innovations for economy passengers like free drinks, videos in headrests and even limousine service to the airport.

Today there is a movement afoot by some managers harking back to the earliest days of management.  They want to create more rules, greater command and control, more processes to agile and that is an enormously self-defeating exercise of futility.  The rules for software development are guides to keep you out of trouble.  Rather like following the correct procedure for treating glycerol with white fuming nitric acid under conditions appropriate to the formation of the nitric acid ester[8].  If you don’t follow the rules, it will get mad at you and blowup[9]!

But rules, at least software development ones, should never be constricting or defining.  As a manager you should never act Napoleonic and admit the success of someone who did not follow orders and then have them shot or disciplined or demoted or fired.  To be truly agile, you have to be a rule breaker and a maverick.  By its very nature, if you are being innovative, you are not following rules.  This only counts, of course, if success is achieved.  Being different for the sake of uniqueness has no value in software development.  I hope this inspires managers, especially senior managers, to throw off their conventional thinking and legacy procedures and listen to new ideas and promote intelligent thinking, not enforce rote behavior.  Remember till next time – keep agile!


[1] The Poconos are marvelous this time of the year, see http://www.800poconos.com/

[2] Or any indoctrinated thought for that matter.

[4] Besides wishing to instill silence in my friends Joe and Rick.

[5] Too often we equate business to military strategy or martial arts.  The Book of Five Rings is a classic example.  Even Jeff Sutherland talks about ShuHaRi.  This puts everything on a conflict basis instead of concentrating on teamwork, communication, freedom of action and developing potential.  It is not that these lessons are bad, I believe we are interpreting the message of these masters incorrectly.

[6] The QWERTY layout of keys on a mechanical typewriter was designed in the 1870s to slow down the speed of typists that caused keys to jam together.  By putting the common vowels e, a, i, o away from the index fingers of the hands, the speed was reduced and jams prevented. Personally I would have fired someone for suggesting such a counterproductive solution, but we are still stuck with it today.

[7] First class passengers were coddled, business class passengers tolerated and economy passengers treated like cattle (at least that is how I felt).

[8] See “nitroglycerin” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[9] I could not resist sneaking in a line from the Producers spoken by incredible Zero Mostel only he was referring to dynamite.

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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4 Responses to Rules, Rules Everywhere and Never an Agilist in Sight!

  1. Jennifer says:

    Oh I am so going to be a rule breaker Brian! Thanks for another great post!

  2. Joe says:

    Do you know how annoying it is when you are always right??? lol Well you won this round and I’ll admit it, but Rick won’t.

  3. Jessden says:

    Brian – I will never tire of your sense of humor or your literary genius for sharing knowledge. I hope you post more like this.

  4. Wallace Redman says:

    This is one heck of a post Brian. It is unbelievable how you have packed so much commentary and thought tinged with dry humor into such a short post. I followed every link and got more out of the point you were making about rules and laughed often along the way. You are an impressive writer. This is going on my desk in a framed picture and I am going to send it to everyone I work with. Thanks for posting! -WER

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