CMMI and Agile Blog

January 1, 2017

The Power of Principles

In my last blog I shared what motivated me to write my latest book, “It’s All Upside Down,” and I shared a little about what is in Part I of the book including some information about the 26 “upside down principles” (that aren’t really upside down).

In this blog I explain why I have chosen to focus on principles in the book rather than the more traditional approach of focusing on “best practices.”

So let me start this blog with a little background.

In 2015 I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Agile Africa conference, and while attending the conference I listened to Kent Beck who gave a keynote address.  Kent talked about what he called policies – or what many of us might think of as principles–used at Facebook.

An example Kent referred to in his talk was “personal ownership”.  I found his talk fascinating.  The way Kent presented his material was by showing a single diagram with all of the principles visible.  He highlighted each principle he was about to talk about. Then he explained—using no extra slides, but just informally speaking– how the highlighted principle was implemented by practitioners at Facebook.

Listening to Kent using this presentation style gave me great insight into how work actually gets done at Facebook– and it struck me that he didn’t say anything about specific “best practices” used at Facebook.

This caused me to think about what the difference is between principles and practices.  This led me to the realization that principles are more closely aligned with goals, while practices focus more on approaches–or steps– to achieve a goal.

Now, please don’t jump to the wrong conclusion, or misunderstand what I am saying here.  Practices are certainly needed– especially for less experienced practitioners who need guidance in the steps to achieve a certain goal.  They are also needed for more experienced practitioners who often need reminders. However, there is a power in simply stated principles, along with a clear goal, that practices alone cannot provide.

For those who disagree, or challenge this assertion, I provide many examples in Part I of my book of the innovative activities teams come up with on their own to address their specific challenges.  And they do this with little help beyond having a clear goal and a few simple principles.

As an example, in Story Two of my book I share four specific examples of simple creative activities one of my clients came up with to solve specific challenges faced with regard to a stakeholder issue and a testing weakness the team knew existed.

Now, please understand that this is not to say that industry best practices cannot help teams with specific challenges.  But it is to say that best practices and lessons that were learned outside your organization can never replace listening to your teammates’ current specific challenges, brainstorming possible solutions to solve those challenges, and agreeing on specific courses of action.

Many might think that industry proven “best practices” would always trump whatever an individual team might come up with.  But my true stories demonstrate over and over again where this is often not the case.

Give your team a clear goal, and share some principles along with simple guidance in applying the principles, and you might just be surprised how far they can go to solving their challenges on their own.

I would also like to point out that I am not the first person to have observed the power principles.  Scott Ambler, one of the reviewers of my book, told me that with Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) they emphasize principles because people might actually read them and understand them.

In my next blog I will share with you a little bit about why I decided to include a Part II to my book, and what is in Part II.

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