The Tool Trap

As a life long fan of technology and one privelaged to work within a high tech industry, it’s easy to get distracted by the shiny…

Technology is nothing but tools. When you consider that the people who are usually most passionate about technology are the ones in the agile camp, the proliferation of agile tools in the market place has a sense of inevitability.

It is also the most common mistake we make as practioners, certainly when we start down this agile road. Agile = Cool so we want all the shiny cool new tools. Preferably one written in Ruby (or Python or Haskell). With many rounded corners and buzzword compliance.

I think the reason why we fall into this trap, why we find it so compelling is because we’re technologists. At our core, we believe that given the right tools we can change anything for the better. This unflagging optimism is why I read too much sci-fi. On my first real scrum job, I immediately went straight for the throat and tried to find the right tool to get this scrum stuff embedded into our development process ASAP. I believed that the tool would help us ‘do it right’. Turns out there is a word for this belief: Technicism

And I got it precisely wrong.

Agile adoption is a change process, and change is hard. We all too easily use technology to hide from change. My problem with most electronic scrum tools I’ve seen, is that it is all too easy to use them to hide the valuable stuff that help us to manage the change. (Maybe if we had the technology where all our walls were display screens that were also touch-sensitive it might be different.)

Change is also about humans. People. We’re complicated beasts and slow to change. So the best thing to use to bring that change about is the base instincts. For example, we’re social creatures. That means that the most important influences on our behaviour can be found in our peers. This is a function of our evolutionary history. So use the peer pressure to help drive behaviour. A visible example of this is the daily stand up.

In a recent conversation with a much wiser man than myself, Peter offered the not entirely surprising insight that most agile teams which move from a physical (cards, sticky notes, scrum boards) to an electronic one, usually go back to the physical. I believe that there is a sinister conspiracy at work: Scrum is in fact a 3M marketing ploy. The insight that I get from this is one that is easily lost in a cubicle farm. Making software is a social activity, and the technology we use to communicate is a poor analogue for our evolved communication patterns. Alistair Cockburn has a graph which illustrates this wonderously. In fact go read his talk while you’re at it.

So what I have learned is that this agile stuff, works a whole lot better when I step away from my identity as a tool user / maker. In fact I get a warm fuzzy feeling whenever I see my team in front of our scrum board…


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