Tuesday, February 23, 2010

the revival of an oral tradition

Around 400 BCE, Socrates stated he didn't trust the written word for the following reasons:
  • When the audience was confused, no one could respond to questions
  • When we no longer train our memory to recall facts, we become more forgetful
  • The written word cannot tailor the message to the audience, nor does it afford the art of performance
We in the Agile Community can appreciate this perspective; in fact we have embraced face-to-face communication in many ways, from encouraging teams to Sit Together, to promoting peer learning through user groups, conferences, and the Gordon Pask Award (or official Pask Award site), as well as the Agile Manifesto's explicit valuing of "working software over comprehensive documentation", and the popularity of story cards/backlogs that are so brief that they offer no more than a "promise for a conversation".

Yet why is the oral tradition so important? I think it is the most direct way to capitalize on the Wisdom of Crowds, to tap the collective intelligence of the people on our teams who are doing the work. When system requirements are written down, organizations tend to be more hierarchical, individuals more specialized, and more ceremony is involved in software processes. On the contrary, when we rely on oral communication, the organization tends to be more flat, relational, and responsibility is shared. This means that people who have to live with a design/process decision also have the ability to fix any mistakes... and so mistakes are fixed more readily.

There is more. Oral tradition fosters an environment where we begin to use words in a particular way--leading to inside jokes, even dialects--and gelled teams. Often the words used by team members helps them communicate faster and more precisely, at the same time as giving them a sense of belonging and identity. If corporate documentation attempts to standardize on certain word choices, this can damage the fabric of a team. On the other hand, if we allow our teams to specialize their language, grow close and communicate face-to-face, they'll make smarter decisions together, and work together to achieve goals better than if we rely on armchair architects.

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