Dumb Fraud

Dumb Fraud

This post (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive) – and its assenting commenters – illustrates why folks lauding Agile are irredeemably screwed. For as long as folks are dumb enough (ignorant of the facts) or fraudulent enough (in possession of the facts but choosing to ignore or suppress them) to believe that we can improve organisations without regard to the issue of local optima, Agile implementations will continue to fail by a ratio of 3:1 or greater (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive).

So, I’m kind tired of dumbsters and fraudsters whining that the issue of local optima doesn’t matter.

Here’s just one note from Ackoff on the subject: “70% of Business Improvement Programs (TQM, Downsizing, Benchmarking) Decrease Performance” (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive). If you think the same issues do not apply to Agile, then you’re dumb – or in denial, which is much the same thing in my book. And if you think they do apply to Agile, but you’re not going to mention it to your customers and clients because it’s, ahem, inconvenient, then you’re a fraud. Or worse.

If you’re looking for a non-ranty, reasoned explanation of the subject, may I refer you Ackoff, Senge, or most relevant I think, Goldratt (Theory of Constraints)?

But perhaps despite the opening, the aforementioned post (re: Bitching about local optimisations) was more about making a start, doing what you can, and gaining data from experimentation. Well, I’m all for that, with the important caveat (irony of medical analogy not lost here) of doing no harm.


And if you’re hoping (for indeed it is much more of a hope that a certainty) that “making the true bottleneck apparent” to your paying customer or client will have a positive effect, then maybe you might like to exhibit the integrity, courtesy (and courage) to place the risks and possible outcomes (scenarios) on the table before deciding whether to play the cards you’ve been dealt – or to fold?

I think Argyris would approve of that.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Goal ~ Eliyahu M Goldratt
Agile Coaching – Maybe All You Can Do Is Send a Hallmark Card ~ Eric Laramée

  1. Bob,

    I agree with both you and Matt in this case.

    In the work I did as an Agile Coach, I would have loved nothing more than to detonate a large enough charge under the existing management and operational hierarchies and procedures in order to remove the unbelievable inefficiencies that existed. With some clients, I was able to work with teams that were given carte blanche about how they would work and in those cases we did see gains when former barriers were broken, people communicated, and the whole group was focused on the most important work at the given time.

    At other clients, the group with whom I worked still had significant contraints both internally and externally. Essentially, any improvement would at best be a local optimization. For example, if I were engaged to provide coaching on technical practices around testing but there was little if any product management discipline in place, then any improvements weren’t going to have much of an effect to the system as a whole (except maybe to create disruption).

    The only solace I was ever able to take away from such engagements was that I had help some individuals learn that there are different ways to approach building systems. I had some people say that I helped them want to come to work again, which was gratifying.

    The latter type of engagement is what wore me down, and I’m no longer in that business. However, for those who are, you often have to start with the cards you’ve been dealt and help people improve in small ways only. Is that unethical? Yes, unless you state that what you’re doing will only provide limited, local benefits. Is it dumb? I have difficulty saying that helping people is dumb.

    However, that’s only my experience.

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I can relate to the frustration folks feel, and of which you write, when faced with seemings insurmountable intransigence or myopia. I have lost count of the number of engagements in which I laid the risks (e.g. people leaving a company once their eyes were opened) on the table and was ignored or disbelieved – and yet was invited to continue with the intervention. Many of the folks (developers) I have worked with still thank me for my ‘helping’ them – but I always felt that the win-lose outcome (win for developers, lose for the company and the folks remaining there) was a monumental failure.

      Here’s just one topical item which illustrates how good intentions can often go awry: http://galleristny.com/2012/08/amateur-restorer-ruins-fresco/

      – Bob

  2. David said:


    As you suggest in your “do no harm” paragraph, I think many folks know perfectly well that they are only trying for local optimisation, because what else can they do? If your day-job is to deliver a particular project, there may not be much time and energy left over to try to influence your organisation more holistically – assuming anyone is interested in listening.

    Do you think that a local success can be a stepping-stone to wider improvement? For example, if a different approach (whether Agile or otherwise) leads to good local results, then those involved may win influence that they would never otherwise have had? Or is that far too naive? 😉

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, I think many folks do know that they are only trying for local optimisation. But do they realise the implications? Are they conscious of the risks – the possible harm – that such a decision and approach implies?

      I am very skeptical of any local success leading to wider improvements. Of course it can happen, but what are the odds?

      Here’s an experiment: When someone in authority asks you or your team to “get something done”, ask “do you (the boss) care about *how* we get it done?” Then, assuming you do get it done, ask again afterwards: “Do you care now how we got it done?” I suspect that most of those bosses who are honest, will first say “No, I don’t care how you will get it done” and after seeing how it was done, will say “well, nice result, but can you please use company standards, best practices, conventional approaches, yadda yadda, next time.” i.e. The zany methods they’ve just seen applied worry them, more that the results please them. YMMV.

      – Bob

  3. Hey Bob,
    Thanks for another thought provoking post as well as underscoring the main point of mine 🙂

    My biggest issue with posts warning about local optimizations is that they often seem to be calls to non-action, not calls to emergent, informed action. In this post, I’m glad to hear you say you are all for making a start and doing what you can.

    I like, very much, the phrase “do no harm” and reference to the Hippocratic Oath. I believe it’s a good credo for all to follow, but especially consultants. I’ve always felt that the Hippocratic Oath described the intent of the practitioner, not a specific outcome void of context. I’m also aware this could be a slippery slope, and should not be used as an excuse for incompetence or malpractice.

    I’d also like to be clear about the difference (in my opinion) between a local optimization of a system, and simply improving people’s individual skills. For example, showing craftsman how to be better at their craft I don’t see as a bad thing. I don’t see it increasing waste and I do see it as improving a system larger than the organization in which they work. However, if an org is looking to get training or “coaching” on nothing more than dev practices and what to call that an “agile transformation”, I hope by now most would agree that this is not the case.

    On TOC/Goldratt…I believe anyone who considers themselves an /organizational/ change agent should read Goldratt and study TOC (and probably Throughput Accounting while they’re at it ;). I also think it’s important to reflect on how TOC is applied for knowledge work in people-based systems. Some important difference to consider is *what*, in this more fuzzy context, is actually flowing through the system. In this context things are much more subjective. You can’t simply see inventory physically stacking up in piles for example… It’s sometimes very difficult to sense where the “next bottleneck” is and measure the improvements in these kinds of systems.

    And one last parting comment on “playing the hand your dealt”. Due to some organizations’ general ignorance around what is involved for doing any kind of holistic Lean/Agile/Whatever change, you (an internal or external change agent) may not always get the chance to start taking action where you believe the actual bottleneck to be. However, I think you can make some local improvements, work to build trust, highlight to stakeholders where other constraints in the system are, and work to try to move them in this direction. I also FERVENTLY agree that individuals attempting such activities should disclose, upfront, to their clients the risks of only taking on local improvements (including talent erosion, morale impacts, potential delays, and spending more money on not adding any real value to end users or the bottom line).


  4. Thanks Bob,

    You’re as insightful as always.

    When did the agile movement stop being practitioners seeking something better and become a bunch of rabid zealots evangelising the one true way?

    I missed the inflection point but it is very clear to me now that it isn’t what it was.

    Then again, perhaps it is only me that has changed.



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