Understand Principles behind Practices

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To work effectively as part of a team we need to agree to how the team members will interact. Sometimes these guidelines are expressed in terms of a development method such as Scrum, or XP, for example.

Development methods have principles and practices. The principles describe the underlying ideas and values of the method. The practices are what you do to realize them.

Following practices (without deep understanding) allows you to quickly try something new, and in many cases you can be quite effective by following the rules. And when you are learning a new way of working there is a lot of merit in following practices "by the book." Over time you will discover situations where the a practice seems to be getting in your way. An understanding of "why" allows you to make decisions about how to apply a practice: for example, you may come to a different understanding of how to Pair Program if you thought that the reason for Pair Programming was to save money on computers, as opposed to having the benefit of real time code reviews. Test Driven Development is a great idea that can simplify code and make development less expensive over the lifecycle. But writing overly complicated tests can increase the complexity of the code, and increase the cost of the or writing the wrong test because you want to code "test first." Writing detailed tests early about an aspect of the application that you know will change frequently can increase the costs to make a simple change.

Being excessively dogmatic about how things are done can also erode innovation. In addition to understanding the principles behind a practice, question whether the principles and practices make sense.

When adopting a new practice of development method:

  • Resist the temptation to customize the practice early on; you risk losing the benefits of a new way of working.
  • Once you have had some experience evaluate whether your execution of a practice is in line with its principles.

Following rules dogmatically can be helpful when you are trying something new to force you to change your mindset, and you can get into trouble customizing the rules before you have had a chance to change your mindset. And shared practices and guidelines should be in place to encourage communication and allow you to not worry about tasks that are secondary to your primary goals. But following rules blindly can cause problems too.

For example, having rules about coding styles are very useful when it comes to allowing others to quickly understand your code, and team members not following agreed upon coding guidelines can cause others to waste time. Yet indenting code is not the highest value activity a programmer can do, so code formatting guidelines that can be automated strike a good balance between team productivity and individual productivity.

When you are working, periodically take the time to reflect on whether "what has worked in the past" is still the right thing. Whenever you see someone on your team doing the "wrong" thing, take the time to understand the reason behind what they are doing. Sometimes they may be falling off the rails. Sometimes that may be seeing something from a different perspective.

By Steve Berczuk

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3

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