“Over’s” Usefulness in Decision Making

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The Agile Manifesto was written in a very deliberate style, for example, “Individuals and interactions over process and tools.” The word “over” was carefully chosen and establishes a key agile principle that many things in our world are too complex for black or white answers so we need to differentiate between what is critical and what is important. To continue with our example, it’s not that process and tools are unimportant—there are a myriad of tools that increase the productivity of agile teams—but that in the final analysis, people are more important. Think of it this way. If you were a project manager, would you rather have the best tools and processes, but mediocre people; or talented people and so-so tools and processes? Obviously, we would pick the latter. However, that selection doesn’t make tools or process unimportant. How would you like to run a great team that had no tools? It’s just that sometimes we have to make hard decisions and having a series of “over” value statements can help. Software development reflects the business world today—complex, uncertain, fast, risky, volatile. These traits dictate that development efforts have to be adaptable, customized, and evolutionary. There isn’t a single correct practice or method for every project. However, this doesn’t mean that anything goes—that there aren’t preferences. While we have to be adaptable, we also have to make decisions, and ultimately decisions reflect higher and lower priorities and we need to give people guidelines for their decisions. What if the Agile Manifesto had been written? “We believe the following are the most important:
  • Individuals and interactions
  • Working software
  • Customer collaboration
  • Responding to change”
While these would have established importance, they would not have been as effective as decision making guidelines. Even with using the term “over,” people still misinterpret the Manifesto as singularly focusing on the first parts of the statements. In a world of complexity, this use of “over” statements can be beneficial in decision making because this type of statement does two things: (1) it clearly establishes what has highest priority, and (2) it establishes that the second part of the statement identifies something important also, just not the most important. The very fact that “processes and tools” resides in the Manifesto statement establishes them as important. Another example of using over statements would be in evaluating project performance–what’s more important, predictability or adaptability? Write the statement one way “adaptability over predictability” provides us one guideline, while reversing them shows another. However, by including both we also establish that both are important and need to be considered in our decision making. One of the most difficult things team members, managers, executives—everyone really—do is make decisions. Guidelines, some criteria for making decisions, are very valuable. But for the most part they can’t be black or white—they can’t be statements like “in all cases this is the most important.” There needs to be nuance that allows for complexity, uncertainty, etc. Using “over” statements as guidelines is one way to improve your team and organization’s decision making.  

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