Razor Blade Advice:

Sometimes I use the phrase “giving razor blades to babies” when recommending against some bits of well-intended advice. Let me say a few words about that.

I’ll assume you are not in favor of giving razor blades to babies. If you are, well, ** off.

Let’s take one of the easiest examples, making and publishing estimates for stories. Mind you, on the first XP project, we did that, and it worked pretty well. Estimating can work well.

It can also go horrendously wrong. And the reasons are mostly obvious.

If we treat them as a metric, they’ll be gamed.

If we push for lower estimates or stretching our capacity goals, we’ll lose quality.

Having lots of stories with estimates encourages laundry-list thinking. Agile really works best when we limit scope rather than expand it.

… and so on.

But no one who understands Agile would do those things! Surely we just explain the mechanisms and these abuses will go away.

Well, no, and also, no.

No#1, when we explain something to people, it’s because they don’t already know it. After we explain it, they may have heard it, but they don’t know it. And truth is, they may not have even heard it: people tend to hear what they are ready for and to disregard the rest.

So, even if we do explain it, putting this idea in the hands of these relative newbies is risky. Yes, we said “this is sharp, be careful”, but their fingers are very likely to be bloody like day after tomorrow.

No#2, though, these people are embedded in a world where the people they talk with haven’t even had a chance to hear our good advice. They are like “Oh, estimates, how shiny”, and they use them the way any sensible person would, as metrics, goals, and batch thinking.

These people are almost guaranteed to cut themselves with our perfectly good advice.

I must digress to tell you the story of my mandoline. If you don’t know the word, look it up: it’s a neat thing for slicing and julienning. Clearly you need one. I did.

These bastard things are made of knives. Yes, there is a plastic thing for pushing the veggies into it. Yes, you could get chain mail gloves. Yes, you could have someone you don’t like slice the veggies.

I used mine a few times, never cut myself, extrapolated into the future, wrapped it up, put it back into the box and threw it away. Why? I prefer my fingers attached, and my blood on the inside.

It’s the same with Razor Blade Advice.

In the hands of an expert, some of our tools are very powerful and possibly valuable. But some of them are so prone to misuse that I prefer never to recommend them, because I know that the reach of my words is far further than the reach of the understanding of my words.

Don’t give razor blades to babies, that’s my advice.