Prof. Jan Bosch, 07 September 2020
During a meeting this week, I had to think of a famous quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The two senior leaders to whom I was talking complained about their R&D organization doing everything right on paper from an Agile, data-driven perspective, but still ending up with building humongous, inflated features that were released after many months of development.
This is of course a classic example of feature creep many companies fall into. When exploring how the situation developed, the discussion made clear that a very small number of influential people in the R&D organization had managed to convince the others that the initial plan of releasing a minimal viable feature wasn’t possible as it would cause angry customers.
I don’t want to focus on feature creep but rather on the ways a vocal minority in an organization, or even society at large, can have an impact that far exceeds the size of the group. In general, I’m a big proponent of a small group of individuals taking charge to initiate change within an organization. Even if the senior leaders pride themselves on leading major changes in their organization, almost always some individuals had been pushing for and championing the change for quite some time before it was picked up by senior management.
The challenge with “the vocal minority,” as I often refer to it, is that their success often depends more on the ability to use rhetoric and debating techniques than on the actual, technical nature of the change that is being advocated. The consequence is that individuals may passionately argue for changes that are detrimental to the organization and its members. To evaluate the relevance and validity of the proposed changes, I typically apply four questions or tactics.
The first test to which I subject a change proposal is to evaluate it against the fundamental principles I consider to be true. One of these is that faster feedback cycles are better than slower ones. This means that arguing for inflating a feature and consequently delaying its release, as well as the associated feedback goes against the argument for including more in the feature. My general rule of thumb is that work items should be kept to a size that allows one team to complete it in one sprint.
The second question I ask is whether the proponent of the change has considered a sufficiently broad scope of impact. It’s very easy when proposing a change to focus exclusively on the topic at hand and how to address it, without considering the broader scope. For instance, releasing larger features may offer more relevant functionality to a wider subset of customers, but it may also decrease the (perceived) quality of the system as it’s harder to test a large chunk of functionality than it is to test a small slice.
The third test is to explore second-order effects. In a famous story, Mao Zedong ordered all sparrows in China to be killed as they ate seeds. The second-order effect was an explosion of the locust population, causing a famine resulting in the death of millions of people. In software engineering, a well-known case is incentivizing software engineers to use code from a shared code library to increase software reuse. This has caused all kinds of interesting effects, including engineers first checking in their code into the shared code library and then “reusing it” to get their bonus. Although it often is very difficult to predict second-order effects, it’s generally possible to generate relevant hypotheses that either can be tested or for which at least circumstantial evidence can be collected.
'Complement the beliefs that underlie the reasoning with empirical data'
The final mechanism I use is to explore if it’s possible to run small-scale experiments that provide additional evidence concerning the proposed change. The challenge with the first three tests/questions is that these are based on argumentation and reasoning and not necessarily founded in empirical reality. It’s critical to complement the beliefs that underlie the reasoning with tangible, empirical data to increase the confidence that the change will have the intended outcome and avoids unwanted side effects.
Concluding, in my experience, virtually all change in organizations is initiated by a “vocal minority.” This minority often relies on rhetoric and debating techniques to gain influence, rather than the quality of their proposal. This requires all of us to critically reflect over change suggestions. I’ve described four techniques that I use to evaluate these proposals. Rather than submitting to some form of herd mentality, it’s the responsibility of each and every one of us to maintain independent and critical thought, independent of peer pressure. Don’t be a sheep!