Lessons... from project management

This article was written by Stefano Borghi, Chief of Software Factory at NSI and expert in agile methodologies.

Inspired by Raymond Queneau I thought some time ago to write some brief notes on agile methods following the outline of a source that had nothing to do with the field of agile methodologies, just for fun.

In my brain, the association between Queneau and Italo Calvino was involuntary and automatic, and so the pattern that came to mind was that of the Six Memos For The Next Millennium, which Calvino wrote in 1985 and which became American Lessons (Garzanti 1988).


To whom Guido, seeing himself closed by them, said quickly: 'Gentlemen, you can tell me at home what you like'; and placing his hand on one of those arches, which were as large as he who was very light, he took a leap and was thrown to the other side, and having grown out of them went away.”. Boccaccio, Decameron, VI, 9

Calvino chose this image of Cavalcanti freeing himself in a leap "sì come colui che leggerissimo era" as a symbol of the first of the values he considered essential for literature: lightness. I like to think that the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher rising above the heaviness of the world could also be taken as a symbol of the agile project manager.


The second value that Calvino considers important for the future of literature is rapidity, and in his book he writes: "The rapidity and conciseness of style are pleasing, because they present the soul with a crowd of simultaneous or rapidly succeeding ideas, which appear to be simultaneous and make the soul sway in such an abundance of thoughts or spiritual images and sensations, that it is either unable to embrace each one fully, or has no time to remain idle and devoid of sensations". (G. Leopardi, Zibaldone, 3 November 1821).

Even in agile project management there is an emphasis on speed. Why?

Reducing cycle time with small batches of work and fewer things in the pipeline maximises opportunities for feedback. Antifragile projects are feedback-driven: an antifragile project (or organisation) is not one that tries to guess what the future holds and calls this prediction a plan, but one that develops the ability to respond quickly to the coming future.


Precision for the ancient Egyptians was symbolised by a feather that served as a weight on the scales where souls were weighed. That light feather was named Maat, goddess of the scales. The Maat hieroglyph also indicated the unit of length, the 33 centimetres of the unit brick, and also the fundamental tone of the flute.

This is how Calvino begins his lesson on accuracy.

The juxtaposition of the feather and exactitude helped me to understand that exactitude should not only be sought in formal methods that attempt to guarantee it by checking the logical correctness of each step, as in an axiomatic system: if the premises are correct and the rules of inference preserve correctness, the results will be correct.

In "The Society of the Mind" Marvin Minsky (1989) talks about logical chains and explains that purely logical reasoning is like a bridge with a single span that goes from the premises to the conclusions, while ordinary reasoning checks each step not only from the logical point of view, but also from the point of view of the actual correspondence with reality; therefore, it is comparable to a bridge with many supports. This is how agile project management works.


And here is Italo Calvino's fourth proposal for the new millennium.

“If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is in order to warn of the danger that we are running of losing a fundamental human faculty (...) I am thinking of a possible pedagogy of the imagination that will enable us to control our inner vision without suffocating it and without, on the other hand, letting it fall into a confused, labile reverie, but allowing the images to crystallise into a well-defined, memorable, self-sufficient, "icastic" form.”

In Scrum, significant aspects of the process must be visible to those responsible for the outcome. Transparency requires that these aspects are defined by a common standard so that observers share a collective understanding of what is being seen. A Scrum Board is used to ensure this visibility.

It is advisable for anyone facing an agile transition to adopt a physical board in the early stages because it is inevitably imposed on the view of all the people involved in the project. Later on, it is inevitable to adopt a virtual board because of the undoubted advantages it offers in terms of traceability and data storage, especially in these times of widespread Remote Working.


Nell’ultimo memos che Calvino riuscì a scrivere, Multiplicity, leggiamo: “Ma Ulrich era stato lì, lì per dir altro; parlare dei problemi matematici che non consentono una soluzione generale ma piuttosto soluzioni singole che, combinate, s’avvicinano alla soluzione generale. Avrebbe potuto aggiungere che tale gli appariva anche il problema della vita umana (…) quell’ampia disordinata fiumana di situazioni, sarebbe allora un susseguirsi a casaccio di tentativi di soluzione, insufficienti e, se presi singolarmente, anche sbagliati, dai quali se l’umanità li sapesse riassumere, potrebbe infine risultare la soluzione esatta e totale." (R. Musil, L’uomo senza qualità, vol. I, parte II, cap. 83).

In the last memos Calvino was able to write, Multiplicity, we read: "But Ulrich had been there, there to say something else; to talk about mathematical problems that do not allow a general solution but rather individual solutions that, combined, come close to the general solution. He could have added that the problem of human life also appeared to him as such (...) that vast, disordered torrent of situations would then be a haphazard succession of attempts at a solution, insufficient and, if taken individually, also wrong, from which, if mankind knew how to sum them up, the exact and total solution could finally result". (R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, vol. I, part II, ch. 83).

Most of the software development projects I have encountered are human affairs, too human to admit of general solutions. They belong to the complex domain - according to the taxonomy of Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework - and there are no pre-constituted ways to deal with them, nor are Best or Good Practices sufficient; the only viable coping strategy is "probe-sense-respond", which I tend to translate as follows: explore, understand intuitively (which means: don't be rigid, use all your faculties) and then act according to the understanding achieved. If the project is simple, or just complicated, you can adopt more deterministic methods, but woe betide the man who will treat a complex phenomenon as if it were complicated or worse, simple!

At NSI - Think Outside the Box, we believe that technology only enables innovation in a sustainable way when combined with humanism.

Together we can innovate by approaching software development with wisdom.

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