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CMMI, ITIL, Six Sigma, Agile, waterfall, software development life cycle and eXtreme Programming . . .what do all of these terms have in common?  They are models.  In a perfect world, models are abstractions that we find useful to explain the world around us.  Models work by rendering complex ideas more simply.  For example, both a road map and picture rendered in Google Earth are models.  Two very different types of models: an abstraction of a set roads, buildings, parks and plants that exhibit can provide more information than rendering.  Real life is complex, Google Earth is less complex and the road maps are the least complex.  Simplifying a concept to a point allows understanding, while too much simplification renders the concept as a pale reflection.  Oversimplification can lead to misunderstandings or misconceptions, for example the conception that Agile methods are undisciplined or that waterfall methods are bureaucratic.  Both of these are misconceptions (individual implementations are another story).  According to Kenji Haranabe, software development is a form of communication game.  Communication requires that groups understand a concept so that it can be implemented.  Communication and understanding requires finding a level where common understanding based on common words can occur.  Words provide the simplification of real life into a form of model.

Unfortunately it is difficult to determine when enough simplification is enough.  Oversimplification of ideas can allow trouble to creep in.  Oversimplification can water down a concept to the point that it can not provide useful information to be used operationally.  An example of a very simple model is the five maturity levels commonly connected to the CMMI.  The maturity levels build awareness, but provide little operational information.  I do not know how many times I have heard people talk about an individual maturity level as if the name given to that level was all you needed to know about a maturity level.   The less simplified version with process areas, goals and practices provides substantial operational information.  ‘Operationalizing’ an overly simplified model will yield unanticipated results and that is not what we want from a model.  I once built a model of the battleship Missouri that had horrible directions (directions are a model of a model), I used three firecrackers to remodel the thing I ended up with (which was not a very good model).

Models abound in the world of information technology.  If we don’t have a model for it, we at least have TLA (three letter acronym) for it and are working on a model that will incorporate it.  The models that have lasting power provide structure, discipline and control.  They’re also used as a tool to guide work (tightly or loosely depends on the organization) and as a scaffold to define improvements in a structured manner.  Models are powerful; molding, bending and guiding legions of IT practitioners.  The dark side of this power is that the choice of models can be definitional statement for a group or organization.  Selecting a model can elicit all of the passions of politics or religion.  Just consider the emotions you feel when describing Six Sigma, CMMI, eXtreme Programming, waterfall or Agile.  One of those words will probably be a hot button.  The power of models can become seductive and entrenched so as to reduce your ability to change and adapt as circumstances demand.  A model is never a goal!  Define what your expectations are for the model or models that you are you using in business terms.  Examples of goals I would expect are of increased customer satisfaction, improved quality or faster time-to-market, rather than attaining CMMI Maturity Level 2 or implementing daily builds.  Know what you want to accomplish then integrate the models and tactics to achieve those goals.  Do not let the tool be the goal.

Models are powerful, useful tools to ensure understanding, they provide structure and discipline.  Perform a health check.  Questions to ask about the models in your organization begin with:

  1. Is there is a deep enough understanding of the model being used? – With knowledge comes the background to operationalize the model.
  2. What are your expectations of value from the model? – Knowing what you want from a model helps ensure that the model does not become the goal and that you retain the ability to be flexible.

There are many other questions you can ask on your heath check, however if you can’t answer these questions well stop and reassess, re-evaluate, re-train and re-plan your effort.

CMMI, ITIL, Six Sigma, Agile, waterfall, software development life cycle and eXtreme Programming. . . powerful tools or a straight jacket. Which is it for you?

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