TITLE: Agile Thoughts, Healthcare.gov Edition AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 21, 2013 3:06 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Clay Shirky explains the cultural attitudes that underlie Healthcare.gov's problems in his recent essay on the gulf between planning and reality. The danger of this gulf exists in any organization, whether business or government, but especially in large organizations. As the number of levels grows between the most powerful decision makers and the workers in the trenches, there is an increasing risk of developing "a culture that prefers deluding the boss over delivering bad news". But this is also a story of the danger inherent in so-called Big Design Up Front, especially for a new kind of product. Shirky oversimplifies this as the waterfall method, but the basic idea is the same:
By putting the most serious planning at the beginning, with subsequent work derived from the plan, the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work.
You may learn something, of course; you just aren't allowed to let it change what you build, or how.
Instead, waterfall insists that the participants will understand best how things should work before accumulating any real-world experience, and that planners will always know more than workers.
If the planners believe this, or they allow the workers to think they believe this, then workers will naturally avoid telling their managers what they have learned. In the best case, they don't want to waste anyone's time if sharing the information will have no effect. In the worst case, they might fear the results of sharing what they have learned. No one likes to admit that they can't get the assigned task done, however unrealistic it is. As Shirky notes, many people believe that a difficult launch of Healthcare.gov was unavoidable, because political and practical factors prevented developers from testing parts of the project as they went along and adjusting their actions in response. Shirky hits this one out of the park:
That observation illustrates the gulf between planning and reality in political circles. It is hard for policy people to imagine that Healthcare.gov could have had a phased rollout, even while it is having one.
You can learn from feedback earlier, or you can learn from feedback later. Pretending that you can avoid problems you already know exist never works. One of the things I like about agile approaches to software development is they encourage us not to delude ourselves, or our clients. Or our bosses. -----