Pragma

Do you ever feel like the organization around you has lost the plot? That we (collectively) no longer remember why we do all of the things that we are required to do? That we spend an inordinate amount of time on activities that don’t really help.

It is very easy for processes and procedures to transform from pragma to organizational dogma. We forget (did we ever really know?) why we started doing something, and pretty soon, “That’s just the way we do it here.” And pretty soon after that, anyone who questions it “just doesn’t get it.”

The problem is this: When we become dogmatic, we stop reflecting on the goal, and simply do the practice not regarding whether we are achieving the goal, or whether the practice is effective at achieving the goal. When the practice no longer helps us achieve the goal, or gets in the way of achieving the goal, it needs to be adjusted, optioned, or eliminated.

The remainder of this post will explore why things go from pragma to dogma, and how we adjust, option, and eliminate ineffective practices.

Sometimes we start with dogma

Truth is dogma is useful for teaching how to do the practice. When we are just learning the practice, sometimes the goals of the practice are abstract, and they get in the way of learning how to do it. Sometimes you have to “take it on faith” that the practice produces value. This can be because the practice that you experience is a small part of a much larger whole. Other times it is because the value is realized above your pay grade, so doing the practice is divorced from experiencing the value.

But:

That doesn’t mean that everyone doing some aspect of the practice shouldn’t understand how their part contributes to the whole. People are inherently smart about wanting to be perceived as a valuable contributor. When each contributor understands how their aspect contributes to the whole, they have the opportunity to figure out ways to deliver the same value or more value, for less effort – to make themselves more efficient. They also can be a front line identifying other process changes that inhibit the original value. When you expect people do simply follow procedure without understanding why the procedure is there, you lose their ability to contribute to the knowledge pool.

Sometimes its a political posture

Sometimes practices are adopted for political reasons. That is to give the appearance to some outside entity that there is a competence, or organization, or effectiveness that is less evident without the practice. Sometimes this entity is a customer, a regulatory agency, or a corporate entity or department (auditors or bean counters). We adopt practices that make it more obvious that we are doing things well, because the more efficient, organic, pragmatic way appears more chaotic from the outside.

But:

One thing about posturing is that it is a waste. Not in the political sense, because it saves me a bunch of explaining – but in the practical sense. By practicing my posture I accomplish nothing that gets me closer to done, or improves any other delivery practice. Most times it actually gets in the way of improving delivery practices because we spend time and energy convincing others that our delivery practices are already good enough.

When people don’t understand the value (to provide an appearance) as opposed to the apparent value (to actually accomplish the thing that we are trying to make apparent) they invest in the practice. The practice doesn’t actually purport to deliver the thing, because it assumes THAT is already happening, and that we are just POSTURING. When people don’t understand that the posturing practice, is not the real practice, they act like doing the posturing practice should accomplish the actual value that the posture is supposed to display.

This is the basis for a software development anti-pattern – document driven design, that I have written about elsewhere. The confusion between creating a design document (the posture – proving that we have completed a design) and doing the design itself (making the decisions that should be documented) are a perfect example of how posturing can hurt a software delivery process.

Sometimes its a leadership deficit

Sometimes leaders simply want to adopt a practice because of a hidden agenda (she wrote a book about it, it worked for him at XYZ corp, their buddy says it is awesome, they can put it on their CV, they want a black belt or some other cert, they read a case study in some mag or book.) The leader believes that there is a good reason for the practice. They simply can’t or won’t explain what that is to everybody else.

But:

It makes the leader feel good, but perceive that everyone around is a dunce. Never mind whether the practice solves the problem at hand – or whether they have buy in from the team who agrees that adopting the practice will be valuable. If the leader isn’t willing to take the time to socialize the adoption with the team, or to empower the team to adapt the practice to add value more effectively, it ends up being rather dogmatic. I have heard these words from leaders, “Just do it this way – you don’t need to understand.” or “I am to busy to baby sit you knuckleheads, just get it done.”

Adjust, Option, or Eliminate

So what do we do with dogma? How do we help convert dogma back to pragma?

Adjust

If the practice is not orthogonal to the needed value, sometimes it can simply be adjusted or tuned or tweaked to add more value. Start by clearly identifying the value that that practice was ostensibly identified to provide, and see if there are simple easy ways to adjust the practice to add that value for less cost or effort, or with less interference in the rest of the work.

Option

Sometimes the practice applies some of the time, but others not so much. Our dogmatic approach has us applying it even when it adds no value, so simply identify the circumstances when there is no value and stop applying the practice. Whether a different alternative practice can be found is a secondary concern.

Eliminate

Occasionally while we were dogmatically practicing, the world has move around us and there really is no good adjustment or optionality. Just dump it. Adopt a different practice, one that adds the value that you seek.

In order to get away from dogma and move back to pragma – you have to understand value. You go back to why. Don’t ask how, what, when or how much until you have a clear picture of why. To be pragmatic, the how what and when have to be measured against the why.

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