Seduced by the drama?

Have you ever watched those shows on the Discovery channel (or similar) where the huge construction project goes a bit wrong? If it were more mainstream programming the story would pretty quickly stop being about the stuff and start being about the people, but since it is intended for 14-year old boys of every age these programmes don't quite go down that route. Big yellow machines, yum! But they do always have that drama to them. Drama comes form conflict and in these shows the conflict is between what the plan says should happen and the conditions in the world. A smooth and straightforward project would be less than gripping.

There are lots of those, but they wouldn't make great television. I find that many of these shows still don't make especially great television anyway because what actually happens is that, for example, a smooth technocrat (often German, the best sort) arrives, points out a few alternatives, gets everything back on track and off we go to a successful delivery. That's how it mostly is in the grown-up world of proper stuff. Risks materialise as issues (as it is expected they will, from time to time) and are dealt with in a calm and orderly way. There's the occasional stopppage, the odd bout of overtime, the best crane driver in the world has to be lured out of retirement for this one last job or whatever it may be. But there's no food fight. Food fight? Bear with me.

Scott Berkun has an essay out called "Ugly Teams Win", a part of the forthcoming Beautiful Teams. He presents an...interesting model:
[...] when things get tough, it's the ugly teams that win. People from ugly teams expect things to go wrong and show up anyway.
Well. He passes through some interesting observations about the, what shall we say? challenging personalities of several stellar individuals in several fields. You might be very happy to have a Picasso in your house, but to have had Picasso himself would be a different matter. Fine. Of course, a gang of stellar performers is a very different thing from a well-performing team.

However, Berkun's point is well made that the best people to have on your project for the good of the project might not appear to be the best people generally, in all sorts of ways. Building effective teams is a tricky business. He goes further, though:
The only use of beauty applied to teams that makes sense is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. Roughly, wabi-sabi means there is a special beauty found in things that have been used.
I'm not sure that it does, although things that have been used often end up wabi-sabi. Here's a description of wabi-sabi as I've come to understand it
Wabi refers to that which is humble, simple, normal, and healthy, while sabi refers to elegant detachment and the rustic maturity that comes to something as it grows old. It is seen in the quiet loneliness of a garden in which the stones have become covered with moss or an old twig fence that seems to grow naturally from the ground. In the tearoom it is seen in the rusty tea kettle (sabi literally means rusty). The total effect of wabi and sabi is not gloominess or shabbiness, however, but one of peace and tranquillity
In summary "wabi-sabi refers to the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things"

One interesting aspect of this is that things made from natural materials (wood, stone, leather) may acquire charm with wear, but things made form synthetic materials seem not to. Objects can become wabi-sabi through use, wear, or the simple passage of time and the natural processes that they take part in. Berkun wants that to apply to teams:
In this sense, the ugly teams I described at the beginning of this chapter, the underdog, the misfit, represent the wabi-sabi teams
That seems like a huge leap to me, especially when we find out what he means for a team to be used. Here's how he describes the early days of a project, the "Channels" functionality of IE 4:
The deals we made forced legal contracts into the hands of the development team: the use of data [...] had many restrictions and we had to follow them, despite the fact that few doing the design work had seen them before they were signed. Like the day the Titanic set sail with thousands of defective rivets, our fate was sealed well before the screaming began. Despite months of work, the [...] team failed to deliver. The demos were embarrassing. The answers to basic questions were worse.
"Our fate was sealed well before the screaming began" Oooh-kay. And this is the steady-state:
somewhere in our fourth reorg, under our third general manager and with our fifth project manager for Channels, the gallows humor began. It is here that the seeds of team wabi-sabi are sown. Pushed so far beyond what any of us expected, our sense of humor shifted into black-death Beckett mode. It began when we were facing yet another ridiculous, idiotic, self-destructive decision where all options were comically bad. "Feel the love," someone would say.
At least one of Berkun and I have completely and utterly failed to understand what wabi-sabi means.

But that's the least of the issues I have with this. It looks to me as if this team is not being used in the way that an old shoe was used (and so gained its comfort, charm, personality and identity). This team is being abused. Here's how they ended up:
Late in the project, I became the sixth, and last, program manager for Channels. My job was to get something out quickly for the final beta release, and do what damage control I could before it went out the door in the final release. When we pulled it off and found a mostly positive response from the world, we had the craziest ship party I'd ever seen. It wasn't the champagne, or the venue, or even how many people showed up. It was how little of the many tables of food was eaten: in just a few minutes, most of it had been lovingly thrown at teammates and managers.
And there's the food-fight. Don't be distracted by the hysterical high-jinks (as bad a sign as they are). Note that they've had six programme managers by this point. The end-point of the project is described in terms of damage control. Does that sound like the wabi-sabi of the moss-covered stone lantern in the quiet garden? Does it in fact sound like an in any way attractive or desirable outcome? Berkun certainly seems to want to call this a success. He says "The few who remained to work on Internet Explorer 5.0 had a special bond". No doubt they did, no doubt they did.

Here's where this story starts to turn my stomach a little. You see, after going through this dreadful experience "the few that remained" went on to make "Internet Explorer 5.0 [...] the best project team I'd ever work on, and one of the best software releases in Microsoft's history" Maybe so. But at what cost? The majority that didn't remain (it's hard not to imagine them being considered washouts, dropouts, failures), how did they feel about being placed in this outrageous position on IE4? And what are we to infer about teams toughing it out through pre-doomed projects?

One of the few cogent points to have emerged form the recent spasm of interest in so-called Software Craftsmanship is the idea that a "craftsman" has a line that they will not cross, things that they will not do. I tend to agree. I think that the industry would be in globally better shape if more people were prepared to locally say "no" to destructive madness of, well, of exactly the kind reported here for IE4 Channels. I don't consider the members of that team heroic for having made it through and bonded and all that stuff. Well, certainly not "the few". I'm inferring that some folks gave up on this project, walked away from the screaming and got on with something less harmful to themselves. Those are the folks I want to celebrate. And at every scale.

I'm very disturbed that a story such as this one is going to make it into a book about "beautiful teams", even if the point of it is supposed to be the subsequent success of the IE 5 team after their traumatic bonding experience.

This story celebrates failure. And it celebrates a particularly seductive kind of failure, one with which the IT industry is riddled. It celebrates a macho bullshit kind of failure that looks like success to stupid, evil people. It celebrates a kind of failure that too many programmers have come to (secretly) enjoy, and that too many businesses have come to expect that their programmers will (secretly) enjoy and therefore put up with.

In the grown-up world of proper stuff stupid, doomed, destructive projects get cancelled. And that is a successful outcome. We should do more of that.


Paul W. Homer said...

I definitely agree with you, the moral of Scott's story isn't that ugly teams win, it's that Ugly teams make more interesting stories. The winning team was the one that wasn't riddled with scar tissue and covered in food. I can never figure out how or why people work for Microsoft; every time I hear a story from that place it sounds equally as dreadful. They figured out how to milk the world for cash, but they're pretty hopeless at building things.

Paul said...

"Macho bullshit" just about sums it up. Having worked as a manager I've seen developers go through all sorts of heroics. Some motivated by fear, some a strange type of ego, and others just plain old fashioned conscientiousness and a sense of personal responsibility.

Meanwhile the "management classes" happily dictate this is how life has to be, whilst taking no responsibility themselves, and when in reality such trauma imposed on others is always totally avoidable. Usually it boils down to someone in management wanting to avoid telling someone else "the truth". Very often this other person would love to hear the truth, rather than being told lies and becoming the victim of broken promises.

The Craftsmanship label is just another label I agree, but it does raise the question of ethics and professionalism.

If we could raise the ethical bar, and say causing trauma is unacceptable, telling lies is unacceptable, ducking responsibility and hurting others is unacceptable. Then we would go along way to solving the root cause of a lot of our problems.

Anonymous said...

This is a good critique - thanks for posting it.

Clearly I missed the mark for you as i did not intend to glorify the horrific mismanagement I and my team suffered. I would never advocate those parts of the story as a model to intentionally follow.

However, when a team does fail there are great things to be learned. And I do believe that masters of a craft become masters in part by experiencing things not going well and learning from them. Give me two equal candidates, one who has never experienced a project gone wrong and one who has, and I'll hire the later every time.

Where i failed you in this essay is I neglected to talk about the the true heroes of this story: the people who lead IE 5. They transformed the team and gave all the people like me who had been treated poorly an entirely new, and healthy, environment to work in. *That* should have been the focus of the essay. How that environment was created in the wreckage of what happened before.

-Scott Berkun

keithb said...

@ Scott,
Thanks for following up.

Someone once said something along the lines of "success comes form good judgement, good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from failure and failure comes from bad judgement" Probably haven't got that quite right but I think the sentiment is clear.

I'd tend to prefer the team member who's been through the mill, too, especially if they've learned when cut their losses and walk away.

Meanwhile, the story about how the IE 5 team was healthy and good despite the preceding train wreck would have been a much more useful (if less dramatic) one. It's a shame that the essay as published has 9 paragraphs on the train wreck and only 1 on the better world.

I remain confused as to how the title, and the claim that "Ugly teams are bulletproof, die-hard work machines, [...] what does not kill the ugly team makes the ugly team stronger." does not constitute a glorification of suffering.

Other comments here and on the O'Reilly FYI site seem to suggest that I'm not the only one confused by this.

David Peterson said...

Interesting post.

It reminds me of the Special Air Service selection process. SAS team members would die for each other and generally they're neither stupid nor evil, but are certainly macho.

It also reminds me of something in Cialdini's book "Influence" where he talks about initiation ceremonies for fraternity and sorority groups and how they persist despite all attempts by the authorities to stop them. Although the ceremonies are horrible they act to bind the group strongly together and people value things more when they have expended effort or suffered hardship to achieve them.