It’s Wednesday. At last night’s Friday Zoom Ensemble, we talked about Jam. I am inspired to put down some thoughts. Bottom line: On-line strawberry, not raspberry.
One of our members, who shall by the group’s convention remain nameless, began the evening with a bit of a rant regarding Jerry Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam: “The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets”. Our fine member feels that when one is trying seriously to discuss the low level of capability, or the poor spread of some really good ideas, someone in the room will pull that law out of some orifice, essentially to say “That’s the way it is, there’s nothing that can be done about it”.
Now I’m going to make a few points here, including:
- That is the way it is: good ideas get spread thin, to the point of becoming useless.
- That’s not the only way it is: there is another Weinberg law1.
- We have new opportunities to take advantage of that other law.
I have to mention another of Jerry’s laws that I was reminded of in my surfing: the Law of Twins. The Law of Twins states that most of the time, no matter how much effort we apply, nothing of any great significance will result. The law comes with a story. I’ll quote from this article:
Weinberg reported that, while riding a bus in New York City, he observed a mother with six small children embark. She asked the driver the amount of the fare; he told her that the cost was one dollar, but that children under the age of five could ride for free. When the woman deposited only one dollar into the payment slot, the driver was incredulous. “Do you mean to tell me that all your children are under five years old?” The woman explained that she had three sets of twins. The driver replied, “Do you always have twins?” “No,” said the woman, “most of the time nothing happens at all.”
While we’re on the subject, let’s remember the Law of Twins Inverted, which isn’t about turning your kids upside down, as appealing as that may be. That law says:
Occasionally, especially when you’re not expecting it, a significant event occurs.
We may well reflect back on those two laws as well. But first, the Jam.
It’s True, It’s True
The quote above is from MK, private communication. I use it here because I believe that by and large, the Law of Raspberry Jam is true, and that there are important consequences that depend on our being aware of its truth.
Back when I was a child, and kids played together without intermediation from their computers and phones, there was a game called, I kid you not, “Telephone”. In this game, the group sits in a circle, and the starting player whisper any sentence to the player next to them. That player passes the message on to the next, and so on, until the last player whispers to the originator, who then reveals their original message and the received one.
It should be unnecessary to say that the received message is generally hilariously different from the original, and that it gets worse the more people in the chain.
You’ll have had similar experiences in many forms, including responses to your perfectly clear instructions via voice or email, or to the amazingly stupid understanding people take from your carefully crafted Tweets.
I think of it this way.
- When we say something that we think, we can only say a fraction of what we know. Let’s imagine that we’re really good at expressing ourselves, and we can get 95% of our thoughts into the expression.
- When someone hears or even reads what we said or wrote, they only get some fraction of the meaning that’s in there. Let’s imagine that they get 95%.
- Already, the person we talked with has only about 90 percent of what we had to give them.
- The process repeats, and the sequence of fractions is really scary: 0.90, 0.81, 0.66, 0.44, 0.19, 0.037! (That’s right: six people away, they get less than four percent of what we had to give.)
You can see why some folks would just say “Welp, that’s the way of it, nothing to be done about it”. That sort of thing irritates my colleague from last night, and it would irritate me if I cared what people like that think. Hm. I guess I do care, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Self-discovery FTW. Nifty.
But I digress.
There is another Weinberg law which people seem to forget, the Law of Strawberry Jam:
As long as it has lumps, you can never spread it too thin.
In the case of real strawberry jam, the lumps are the big chunks of strawberry.
First of all, whenever someone pulls the raspberry law out on you, you should seriously consider whapping them upside the head with the strawberry law. But more importantly, I think it gives us something to think about as we try to help people with our good ideas.
Let’s suppose that the Zoom Ensemble, my colleagues and betters in the Agile Software Development sphere, and you folks reading (some percent of) these words have some good ideas that we would like to give to people to make their lives better.
A brief word to the cynics: yes, some of those people get paid for helping. So what? Everyone is selling something, even you cynics, and I hope you have something better to offer than cynicism, because I ain’t buyin it. Yes, people get paid for helping. If their help is valuable, they can continue to offer it. If it isn’t, the cold hand of the market will still them, though I grant that it often takes longer than one might like.
Where were we? Oh, right, ideas. For our ideas not to become spread raspberry thin, we need to be offering strawberry jam, not raspberry. We need lumps.
What are lumps in this line of work?
I think a lump would have to be a very small idea, and one that is so solid that once you get it, you have it, and if you don’t get it, you don’t. We need ideas that are small, that can only be adopted as a whole, and when adopted, they make enough of a difference to stick.
What about process elements?
Some smart people are working on this angle. Ivar Jacobson for sure, is working to “free the practices”. Even more recently, Dave Snowden has started to make noises that sound as if he wants to untangle the good bits of “Agile” from the noise.
In the terms of this article, these people are working on “lumps”, or at least on smaller aspects of the jam. Some of those elements, practices, may turn out to be “lumps”: ideas small enough to be taken up as a whole, and providing enough value that they tend to stick.
Is the notion of a Retrospective a lump? How about a daily quick group meeting? How about Test-Driven Development?
They might be. I suspect that TDD is too large to be a lump. If that’s true, it’s a pity, because when TDD is applicable, it’s amazingly useful. But it’s easy to fall away from, and I have come to believe that there are some styles of programming where it doesn’t work well. And “you’re not programming right” isn’t a good lead-in to making it work. I suspect that sometimes TDD really doesn’t apply well.
The daily meeting, like a football huddle, might be a good lump. Even here, perhaps some teams don’t need it, but I find that even working alone, I benefit from lifting my head up from my work and looking at the bigger picture. You can’t get any more integrated than me working alone, and if I need to pull up and check my surroundings, I suspect that even the most mob-oriented team needs to raise up their sights once in a while and see where they are.
The Retrospective might be a lump. I think it’s a bit difficult to build up a taste for it, but once you do, it seems to be pretty sticky, whether you do it on Friday morning, or Friday night at the pub. The “after action review”, it’s often called. Sports teams review the tapes of the game. And so on.
Where I’m at today, regarding lumps, is this:
If we want stronger uptake of our good ideas, we need to make sure that the jam comes with lumps that are very valuable, and difficult, nay impossible, to thin out. Things that are by their nature, solid and complete.
But there’s more:
In the days of yore, the actual words of even the greatest prophet would only be heard by a few. Those few might tell others, or might (decades or centuries later, how does that even work) write them down. The 90, 80, 66, … 4 rule applies: the ideas will be watered down.
If we were to write books–and I’ve written three–the nature of books is that you can’t write a one-lump book. Lumps are too small. Even The Nature of Software Development, which is as lumpy a book as I could write and get published, has 150 pages and probably 20 or more lumps in it. So the 90, 80, … 4 rule applies to it as well.
(I urge you to get a copy, or twenty, to see whether I’m right. Maybe you can get past 90.) (:.aside}
If we do write a book, the people who read it will get some fraction, and I think it’s way less than 90 percent, of what’s in it. So the direct from my brain to my book to your brain can avoid a lot of the raspberry jam effect. But … there are millions of programmers, and I can tell you that Prag have not sold millions of copies of Nature.
There is another form of lump that has become available to us, and I want to suggest that we’re not making use of it as well as we might.
You’ll have heard of it. It’s called the Internet. It’s called YouTube. It’s called TikTok. It’s called having an entire video studio in your den.
We have the ability to record our ideas and to say them directly to anyone who wants to know what we offer, today, tomorrow, and for a long time in the future.
We’re seeing some silly but important examples on TikTok. There are TikTok millionaires, which is interesting not because of the money, but because they get millions of views.
If I could get millions of views from programmers, I fancy that I could perhaps get some lumps across.
These things are beginning to happen for us as well. GeePaw Hill has some outstanding videos, in which he focuses in on small lumpy ideas. Amitai Schleier has a delightful 3 minute podcast. Dave Farley has a number of videos relating to continuous delivery. Ted M. Young has videos and more. Clare Sudbery has the Making Tech Better podcast. Bill Wake does live coding and publishes at Xxp123.com. I’m told that Hon Reid is offering TDD in Swift.
Watch this space. There are more, and I’ll update to mention them. I’m dumping core at the moment.
The point here is that we have the opportunity in today’s world to spread our ideas without the Telephone Game interfering so much. Oh, sure, people will still pass it on, 80, 66, 40, 20, 3, but if our words and pictures are still out there, especially if they’re free, we can hand out the strawberries directly, to as many people as can watch and listen.
For today, the bottom line is:
Offer strawberry jam, with many tasty lumps, not easily thinned-out raspberry, and deliver it as directly as possible
In other words, let’s devise tasty small lumps of our ideas, rather than packaging them as a system or process or transformation. And let’s offer them directly from us to them, via video, podcasts, and the like2.
And, according to the laws of twins, we should probably expect that mostly nothing will happen … but sometimes, something great may occur!