Alistair Cockburn

The cone of silence and related project management strategies

Humans and Technology Technical Report TR 2003.01, Jan 1, 2003

A person managing a portfolio has the job assignment to keep an alert eye open to oncoming trouble and an educated eye open for opportunity, acting in time for both, prioritizing choices along the way.

Managing a project consists of exactly this. Whether the entire team shares the assignment, it is part of the team leader’s assignment or it is given to a dedicated role, whoever holds the assignment is supposed to detect and act on future hazards and opportunities. Only through some odd misunderstanding of project life has project manager come to mean “the person who orders the others around.” It should mean “the most alert and most proactive,” the person that responds effectively to signals. Perception and creativity are intrinsically linked to the job assignment.

As I searched out experienced project managers, especially those labeled “good” by their peers, their perceptiveness and creativity stood out clearly. I began cataloging some of the more interesting strategies that I had been using over the years, and discovered that I was not alone ; almost every team lead and manager has had to invent similar strategies in their “normal” project life.

This article is about one such strategy, invented during my third visit to a troubled project. The problem was completely standard — you will recognize it. If you have ever been a team lead, you have been there. I’ve been in this situation many times and never found a solution for it. The fact that we found a solution that worked this time is why I am writing this article. Of course, in retrospect, we found that many of us had naturally been using this strategy for years; but not having a name for it, we didn’t even notice it in our bag of tricks. The purpose of this article is to give a name and a setting, so you can apply variations of it yourself.

Before telling you the problem and its incredibly simple solution, I have to warn you: To pull off the solution, you need a supportive manager. Remember, a manager is supposed to act to avoid trouble and grab opportunity, balancing priorities? This is a story of how we got ourselves out of a tight situation, with the help of a manager who understood how to support her people. Please don’t write to me to say that you can’t apply this strategy because your manager won’t support this solution – a manager who supports her people in their assignments is the key ingredient to this strategy.

The Problem Setting

Jim is lead programmer and domain expert on a project of eight people (Jim, six other programmers, and Aaron, the project manager). Jim has worked on previous versions of the system. Mark has also worked on the previous system and has domain knowledge. However, he gets diverted daily from this project’s activity by a second boss he has. There is nothing we can find that will reduce the level of interruption he has from the other boss, so he pretty much gets washed out of the project in terms of effectiveness. The other five programmers, of varying abilities, have been added to the project to help Jim get the work done, mostly on the many little programming assignments that don’t need deep domain knowledge. Aaron was recently introduced to help offload Jim from bureaucratic work. Their manager is Lisa.

The six programmers work in partitioned cubicles in an area accessed by a short hallway. Jim sits in a private office coming off this short hallway. Aaron sits around the corner and farther down the main hallway.

Jim has this private office so he can close the door to get privacy, but otherwise be available to answer questions from the other programmers. At least, that was the big idea.

The idea backfires. Jim’s office is tiny, so he keeps it open a crack. Consequently, he sees everyone walking up and down the hall, and he gets asked questions multiple times an hour by the other programmers. He also gets visited or called out every time there is a question about either the schedule or the system architecture.

Oh, and of course, upper management decided to outsource future versions of the product, so Jim has to interface to and transfer knowledge to the outsource company. In short, like so many team leads around the world, he gets nothing done during the day, and is reduced to working nights and weekends. He has no spare capacity left, and is burning out, all without the project making headway.

In my first visit, we go over the project schedule, create a simplified project plan and determine three things. First, the team can’t get done in time. Second, the only person who can do most of the actual programming is Jim. Third, Jim is calamitously overworked. Note that it took most of Jim’s day to participate in this session, so he ended up one day behind for getting this information (all of which was obvious to start with, except for the simplified project plan). So far, this should like like very many software projects.

Attempted Solution #1

It is clear that Jim needs more design time and fewer distractions. So we make the usual promises.

We promise that Jim will not get disturbed for trivial issues. Aaron will take all non-technical interrupts, the new programmers will work together to train themselves on the domain, Mark will track and reduce his disturbances from his other boss (whom we cannot get rid of), and Jim will focus on his programming. He will only be interrupted for major questions.

Of course, this doesn’t work.

Jim’s office is small enough to be claustrophobic when the door is closed. Besides, he case hear people walking up and down outside his closed door, and he frets that something is going wrong that he should be attending to. He keeps the door open a crack.

The other programmers on the project just need to get their questions answered, so they ask Jim anyway.

Mark can’t do anything about his other boss, who, for reasons we needn’t get into, has the right to create high-priority interrupts multiple times a day, and does. In other words, he never gets sufficient time to offload Jim.

No matter how Aaron tries, there are still meetings that need Jim’s technical expertise on the project and scheduling matters. Jim still gets called out of his office, or the meeting comes to him.

The “obvious” solution isn’t working.

Attempted Solutions #2, #3

How about having Jim work at home? We try that, but it turns out that he doesn’t work well at home. Besides the set of distractions around his house, he can’t get the high-speed line he needs to link to the development environment. He has to work in the office.

There is one would-be strategy that usually doesn’t work but we have to try. It is Bundled Distractions (written with a line drawn through it, to show that it is a generally unsuccessful strategy). The idea is to create office open-hours for Jim, and have all questions and interruptions come in during those open hours. We decide that he will handle questions for half a day a couple of days a week.

As is usually the case, Bundled Distractions didn’t work. The team simply couldn’t hold themselves back from questions, Jim couldn’t hold himself back from being helpful.

Why do I bother to mention this strategy if it doesn’t work? I do so because it sounds so good, and so rarely works. In 30 years of project life including 10 years as a consultant, I have never seen it work on a project (although it seems to work with university professors). Nonetheless, it is a possible strategy, and we were desperate enough to try it.

Cone of Silence

Before giving up, we revisit the problem one more time:

Jim needs quiet time to focus, real freedom from distractions, and a high-speed connection to reach the development environment. He can’t work in his home or his office. In a reversal of the usual project priorities, it seems he can’t be close and available to his teammates, he needs to be invisible to them.

I ask one last time (I’m sure this suggestion got made and rejected at least once before in our deliberations) whether Jim couldn’t get a second office somewhere else in the building, far enough away that people won’t be bothered to walk that far to ask him a question, but where he still can connect to the office LAN and have the feeling of being at work. This would provide him with a “cone of silence” in which to get his work done.

Much to my surprise, Aaron, Lisa and Jim all say, “Yes, we could do that – that might work.” To this day, I don’t know why this suggestion didn’t get picked up the previous times it came up (I don’t know that it didn’t come up, I only suspect that it must have been suggested). I think that every strategy is appropriate for a particular level of desperation, and we were not desperate enough before to pay it any attention.

In any case, they get enthusiastic about trying the Cone of Silence, as the name sticks. I remain skeptical, because it seemed to me that Jim will get drawn into meetings just as much as before, but don’t say anything, because we really are desperate by this point.

What Happened

I didn’t see or hear from the team for several months. In a casual phone call one day, Lisa mentions, “Oh, that Cone of Silence is working really well.” Apparently, Jim really does go to that office, and other people don’t bother him. For the first time in over a year, he has enough quiet time to focus on his list of work. He concentrates, he is happy, he makes progress.

What about all the other people on the project, and all the distractions?

The others still have questions, and they entire team moves more slowly than before because their expert is gone, but they make adequate progress without Jim. Aaron and Lisa keep people away from Jim. Aaron steps in and makes project decisions mostly without Jim. Lisa reminds people of the project’s true priorities, which include Jim getting his work done as top priority, and almost everything else second to that.

More months went by, and I receive a call from Lisa again. Almost off-hand, she mentions that Jim is almost finished with his work, well ahead of the project plan we created on my first visit. I confess to be astonished by this news. My view was that that schedule was unduly optimistic. It seems, however, that Jim, a combination of domain expert and senior programmer, was able to move faster when left alone with his code than he predicted.

Why Did it Work?

What worked, and why did it work?

What worked was that Lisa, the manager above the project manager, correctly saw Jim’s progress as the single top priority to the project. Everything else was secondary. Unlike many managers, she was willing to bend rules to attend to satisfying this priority. She was able to find another office, and she kept everyone appraised of the importance of working on the other assignments without Jim.

I highlight Lisa’s role, because I have encountered many managers who insist on keeping everyone within their sight, who won’t go out of their way to get additional resources such as a second office for Jim, or who yield to pressure to bring Jim back to attend meetings and answer questions.

Lisa accepted that the rest of the team would have to “muddle through” without Jim; she correctly assessed that they would, in fact, be able to muddle through, though at a slower pace. Many managers would chicken out at the last instant and recall Jim.

What also worked was that Aaron, the project manager, supported Lisa in the strategy. He had to make himself conversant enough on the topics to make decisions along the way. Note that Lisa had to trust and support Aaron in getting to this level, and Aaron had to support the strategy in not running to Aaron with his questions. Aaron also had to keep the rest of the team from running to Jim.

Besides the level of support, there had to be a barrier, the Cone of Silence itself.

Normally, I recommend putting a project team close together, because research shows that generally, people won’t walk up a flight of stairs to get questions answered, or, as it turns out, even a couple of bends in the hallway [Allen98]. Normally, we want people to get their questions answered, and so we ensure there is no flight of stairs between them.

In this case, we needed that very barrier.

Strategies are Interlinked

Project management strategies do not sit in isolation. I wrote down a dozen strategies, lightly interlinked, in the appendix to Surviving OO Projects. I now find them heavily, not lightly, interlinked.

Osmotic Communication is a strategy is described at length in Agile Software Development. The idea is that teammates sit in the same room or adjacent cubicles, so that they overhear each other during their normal working day, picking up information in their background hearing. Even while not particularly conscious of it, they learn who knows the answers to which sorts of questions and what is happening on the project. They can ask questions without particularly raising their voice, and often can answer a question without particularly getting distracted from their current work. In the normal course of events, Osmotic Communication is the ideal. In our particular project, the Osmotic Communication was good for everyone except Jim. Cone of Silence__sets up the opposite dynamic to Osmotic Communication, sufficiently so that I will come back to these two in a moment.

Expert in Earshot is described in CockburnEiE]. The idea is that novice workers should work within earshot of an expert, in order to pick up good work habits. Like Osmotic Communication, the Expert in Earshot backfired in our situation, actively causing problems because the expert couldn’t get his work done. This backfiring is mentioned in the description of Expert in Earshot as the “overdose effect,” an apt description of what happened on this project.

Progress Team / Training Team is detailed in Surviving OO Projects, where it is given the cute primary name Day Care and the more descriptive name Progress Team / Training Team. I now think that the longer name is the better one. Cone of Silence implements Progress Team / Training Team, since the project needed Jim to make maximum progress, and the rest of the team was allowed to work at a slower pace as they learned their material.

Cone of Silence, then, permits Progress Team to be implemented, at the cost of Osmotic Communication with the expert. It is a deliberate move away from Expert in Earshot.

In general, I find that Osmotic Communication and Cone of Silence are two strategies that need to be balanced, usually with more of the former and only a little of the latter.

Variations on a Theme

A good strategy gets rediscovered many times. After we applied the Cone of Silence successfully, I searched for other situations and some varied ways in which it was done.

A similar implementation of the strategy. I was once in charge of a research project that ran with half a dozen people over a few years. Partway through, it became clear that we were a bit lost in terms of our project structure and plan. I made a deal with a sister organization to get use of a quiet office at their location for two days to rebuild the project plan — I had found our normal office environment too distracting to get two days of quiet time there. I sent an email to my boss, Elizabeth, on the Sunday night before I went, saying what I was doing. When I called in to the office to check for emergencies on the first day, my boss scolded me severely for setting up off-site work without her permission, and for disturbing the sister organization. What a difference between Lisa and Elizabeth! As you can guess, that destroyed any peace of mind I might have within my little Cone of Silence, and the two days were not as productive as I had hoped, although still better than staying at the lab.

A larger implementation of the strategy. I met a manager at a company that was having trouble adopting Extreme Programming. The company had a tradition of “off-sites,” which in their language meant that they moved an entire project team out of the office to a special off-site location for a short period of time — a weekend to two weeks — in order to make maximum progress on a targeted section of software. In the “off site,” they would set up Osmotic Communication and a Cone of Silence for the team. The odd part was that the resistance he ran into was that the people there considered XP as nothing more than extended off-sites, and they therefore wouldn’t try it! (The logic of that I leave as an exercise to the reader.) If their off-sites are so effective, I would think they would legitimize this setup as standard practice for all their projects. Can your organization manage to?

Two very large implementations of the Osmotic Communication with Cone of Silence combination were IBM’s development of the IBM PC in the early 1980s and Lockheeds Skunkworks facility following the second world war (nicely described in the book Skunk Works [Rich94]). In IBM’s case, the executives decided that they couldn’t develop the PC with the existing IBM bureaucracy and working style, so they shipped the team off to a warehouse to get some privacy, speed and informality in their work. Lockheed’s Skunkworks facility designed their most difficult, top secret military airplanes. They sat, deliberately crowded together, with different specialties within easy earshot of each other, in a facility cut off from outside distractions.

A small implementation of the strategy. I usually wear airport-style ear-muffs when I need to concentrate while working in a large room (18 – 20 db hearing protectors . . . I buy them at any local gun shop). I find that this cuts down the noise just enough that I can concentrate, but lets me hear if someone calls my name. I’ll take them on and off depending on how much concentration I need, thus balancing Osmotic Communication and Cone of Silence. Other people use music headphones to get the same effect. Sometimes they never hear their colleagues speaking, though, so they get too silence and not enough communication.


Why did it take so long for us to recognize and apply the Cone of Silence idea to Jim’s situation?

Partly, we hadn’t reached the appropriate level of desperation earlier. We worked through the easier alternatives first, because those would cause less disruption to the project. If one were to categorize the level of desperation as the levels of a fire alarm (one-alarm, two-alarm, three-alarm fires send calls to that many fire stations), then we might say that BundledDistractions and the other strategies we started with are applied at the one-alarm level. Isolating the team lead in a Cone of Silence is disadvantageous to a project under normal circumstances. Only when we reached the two-alarm stage was it a worthwhile tradeoff.

Also, these project management strategies don’t yet have an accepted set of names and study literature. Jim Coplien and I have been deliberately collecting these strategies for a number of years. Jim collects mostly organization patterns CoplienOP, I collect mostly risk reduction Project risk reduction patterns], but these are not yet at the stage where people look through them as standard problem-solving procedure. When I am in an optimistic mood, I think that this might change in another 10 or 20 years.

After we did apply it, why did it work?

It worked in part because people really do find a flight of stairs to be a considerable barrier to asking questions. It worked in part because Jim really could do his work in isolation.

The final, and in my opinion, most important reason it worked, is that his managers, Lisa and Aaron, were perceptive, creative and supportive.


Allen98: Allen, T.J., Managing the Flow of Technology, MIT Press, Boston, MA, 1984.

Cockburn98: Cockburn, A., Surviving OO Projects, Addison-Wesley, 1998.

Cockburn03: Cockburn, A., Agile Software Development, Addison-Wesley, 2002.




Rich94: Rich, B, Janos, L., Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, MA, 1994.

Re: Crystal methodologies

hello, i am a student. i am in the search of following questions? despit of other agile models XP, FDD, etc etc why another family of agile models named “crystal family” was needed? through different studies i am satisfied that “why to use agile process models” but still i can’t know that why crystal models? how crystal are more good than other agile models. kindly give me feed back. regards, Iram

Alistair’s reply: The Crystal family of methodologies was started in 1992, before XP, FDD etc. It was named “Crystal” in 1997, before the agile manifesto. It was one of the founding ‘agile’ methodologies.

It is different than XP or FDD because it is a family of methodologies, not just one.
I have a section on this question in more depth in the upcoming 2nd edition of Agile Software Development due out Nov 2996.

From that book, “A named methodology is important because it is the methodology author’s publicly proclaimed, considered effort to identify a set of practices or conventions that work well together, and when done together, increase the likelihood of success. [and later…] Crystal is my considered effort to construct a package of conventions that raises the odds of success, and at the same time the odds of being practiced over time. ”


-by Iram on 12/13/2008 at 12:06 AM

What if I don’t want to wait another 988 years for your book to come out? ;-)

-by Immo Huneke on 1/20/2009 at 3:55 PM

Nice. :). It seems I managed to get a bit ahead of schedule, and got the book out already in 2006. Whew, imagine you were going to wait 988 years to read it – I was going to have to be 1,042 years old to write it!

-by Alistair on 1/20/2009 at 10:52 PM

If you were to do a “compare and contrast” with the Poppendieck’s Agile Toolkit, what would be the key points?

-by Wade on 3/19/2009 at 4:50 PM

I’m a student from China. Greetings.

I’m not totally understand Crystal Methodology

can you give me more details on it such as the lifecycale model of it.

regards Newman

ps.It will be very nice of you to send me an E-mail because in china when you open a web page of other contries it will be incredibly slow.

-by 夏宜蜜雪 on 3/22/2009 at 10:13 AM

-by 夏宜蜜雪 on 3/22/2009 at 10:14 AM

Very refreshing ideas indeed. Words such as non-jealous and just-in-time make perfect sense.
I understand that the aim of Crystal would be to provide a methodology aiming to create a per-project methodology. It’s just a matter of words but, would it be correct to assume that Crystal is more like a meta-methodology than a methodology ?

-by Antoine on 8/10/2009 at 6:06 AM

Hi, Antoine – You are right, in a wide sense.

A methodology is nothing more than “the conventions a group of people adopt”, a nice, simple definition that allows it to drift over time and be easily documented and easily changed.

Knowing that, how can I possibly write down in a book the conventions that every team on the planet should use?

So instead, I write down the parameters and principles I understand thet help people work together and tell whether their conventions make sense. The “Properties of Successful Projects” are the guideposts, the principles are the physics of teamwork, the techniques and strategies are industry lore.

So in this sense, yes, it’s meta to any specific team’s methodology.

Good eye.


-by Alistair on 8/11/2009 at 2:19 PM

Referring to the Agile Manifesto and values of valuing one thing over the other back in Feb 2001, I strongly believe that for any project people are very important but tool as well. I was reading an article defending the agile values, saying that tools are important but need people to operate. What about the people with out tools? I meant to say that aren’t they both have some importance in a project. Also working software over documentation. Documentation are considered to be overhead but what in case if the people working on the project are offered better job elsewhere and they leave the project with out documentation? Isn’t it the case if people are agreed to work till the delivery of the project and provide guarantee that they won’t leave until the project ends. I hope you will understand where I am coming from.

Secondly, does any of the agile methodology fits for any project. I mean like can the values and principles of methodologies be ignored if creating problems? Or in other words, is it practical to apply partial principles by omitting the one that don’t work for any specific case.

Thirdly, I was trying to evaluate the agile methodologies as was trying to find out their appropriateness for IT Projects? What can be the criteria for the evaluation and assessment of these methodologies?

Lastly, what can be considered as an international IT project? Is there any definition available which can distinguish international IT project? Please explain

I hope this would not be too much to reply.



-by Faisal on 9/15/2009 at 4:37 PM

no saben de algunos proyectos que usen estas metodologias?? y tambien que usen MétricaV3
gracias de antemano

-by yoci on 9/27/2010 at 6:52 PM

What are sample systems developed using crystal clear methodology????please answer…...

-by erdz on 1/9/2011 at 9:46 PM

me too i say it:

What are sample systems developed using crystal clear methodology???? please answer…...

-by Ruben Huanca on 11/14/2011 at 12:20 PM

15M$ fixed-price contract using Smalltalk, COBOL, DB2 in U.S., 50 people, 1994-5; Insurance claims system in Germany, 6 people, 1998-2003; French post office 2002-4, 24 people; Belgian post office 2004-6; Radiology imaging advisory system in U.S., 4-16 people, 2004-11. Others I don’t know of. Alistair

I used Crystal Clear to develop a couple of petroleum exploration systems. C++, 6-15 person-year projects.

-by Satoshi on 11/28/2011 at 4:18 AM


I’m currently working on a study about agile methods and their apllications. Would you say that agile methods and especially Crystal methods are limited to project issued of Software development? I would love to hear your opinion about that.

Thank you very much for your answer



-by Benjamin on 12/31/2011 at 1:11 PM

Hi, Benjamin; agile approaches, including and especially Crystal, have nearly nothing to do with software development specifically. It is just an accident of history that programmers articulated the properties of effective team design first. Crystal applies to nearly every group endeavor, with increasing relevance to team-based design, and eventually to software. Thanks for asking. Alistair

Hello and Happy New Year,

Thank you very much for your quick response, I would like to ask some more questions about Crystal methods and their applications to common project management. I would really appreciate it if you could find some time to answer 4 to 5 questions by mail?

Thank you very much in advance,


-by Benjamin on 1/1/2012 at 9:15 AM

Hi, Benjamin: I will if you read the book Crystal Clear first. I’m not interested in regurgitating in emails what I took a long time to write down carefully.

-by Alistair on 1/3/2012 at 1:19 PM

Hi Alistair,

Can you Provide me the one line definition of the following:

1. what is Agile methodology?
2. What is scrum methodology?
3. What is xp methodology?
4. What is Crystal Methodology?

I just want to know the answers of these questions because I appeared for an interview and these are the questions that I was unable to answers and for this reason I lost the job.
So, I want to know how to handle these questions in the interview. I mean what type of answer needs to be presented?


-by Rahul Sharma on 1/4/2012 at 2:00 AM

Hi Alistair,

Can you Provide me the one line definition of the following:

1. what is Agile methodology?
2. What is scrum methodology?
3. What is xp methodology?
4. What is Crystal Methodology?

I just want to know the answers of these questions because I appeared for an interview and these are the questions that I was unable to answers and for this reason I lost the job.
So, I want to know how to handle these questions in the interview. I mean what type of answer needs to be presented?


-by Rahul Sharma on 1/4/2012 at 2:06 AM


I fully understand your concern and I asure you that I already read a lot about agile methods and Crystal methodology in particular. I read your book about Agile Software Development (The Agile Software Development Series) and it helped me a lot for my study. I just have a few questions about how the flexibility of agile methods is working in practice in complex projects where documentation is important. I was also wondering if you would have maybe some feedback of agile methods beeing used in non-software projects?

Thank you very much,


-by Benjamin on 1/4/2012 at 5:40 PM

Hi, Benjamin, Rahul: I’m sorry, simple Google searches turn up answers for all these questions. Alistair

-by Alistair on 1/4/2012 at 8:28 PM

what is crystal? please explain and give me examples I Just want to understand it.

-by chris on 3/6/2012 at 10:56 AM

what is crystal? please explain and give me examples I Just want to understand it.

-by chris on 3/6/2012 at 10:56 AM

what is crystal? please explain and give me examples I Just want to understand it.

-by chris on 3/6/2012 at 10:56 AM

why is crystal called a family of agile methods?

-by chris on 3/6/2012 at 11:01 AM

Hi, does crystal have any forum o webpage support where I can find the “official” practices?
(like for scrum )
Thanks in advance :)

-by Juan Daniel on 4/26/2012 at 11:12 AM

yes – the crystalclear forum on Yahoo:

Dear Alistair,

You are a patient man. :) Thanks for all your work, which has been most informative to me.

-by Bob Rodes on 8/26/2012 at 11:53 AM

LOL, Bob – that may be the first time I’ve been called that! Thanks! :). Alistair

hi, i am a student in a project search. i want to know more about crystal clear and crystal orange in agile methodologies.

-by francis on 9/27/2012 at 6:51 AM

_The discussion group is at blank"> ... hit the Join button and I’ll get a message w your email address and OK you for the group…. Alistair

Hi Alistair,

Just want join the group for another new project.



-by Blvette75 on 2/27/2013 at 8:49 PM

This is satire right? Please tell me this is satire. Or I quit the IT industry.

-by Erwin Katz on 3/8/2013 at 6:16 AM

Hey Alistair,

I did my math – you are 59 years old :) Am I correct ?

-by Saravana Bharathi on 8/21/2013 at 3:56 PM

Hey Alistair,

I did my math – you are 59 years old :) Am I correct ?

-by Saravana Bharathi on 8/21/2013 at 3:56 PM

what is crystal family methology?

-by bpt5s on 5/16/2015 at 6:52 AM

Re: What to do instead of bad responsive design

So, to my mind something like twitter or do what I really want from responsive design: as I narrow my browser, they re-lay-out to fit everything in the new narrower space.
Are you saying that this is what you don’t like?

What I do find really irritating is sites following your unbroken-baguette example, overflowing the plate, so I have to horizontal scroll to read when I shrink the window.

I can see the 3-width shrink (desktop-tablet-mobile) being over-sensitive sometimes.

It’s true that e.g. also fits everything in a shrinking window without responsive design. But the text still has to move, so I still lose my place.

But to add ammunition to your cause: I see nothing ‘lazy’ in responsive design. It appears to take at least as long as doing two (or three) layouts + bugfixing the transitions.

-by Chris F Carroll on 5/13/2015 at 2:54 PM

What to do instead of bad responsive design

What to do about bad Responsive design?

Short answer: Design for the device.

I get to use really good mobile apps – they are clean, easy to read, easy to use. (Examples abound. Orbitz is a handy one). Whoever designed those understood the medium, its affordances and limitation, and designed for that.

Big screen is different – different medium, different affordances. Good designs on the big screen are very different than good designs on the small screen.

Responsive design is the lazy designers way to make designs that fit no screen well. Kind of like 1-size-fits-all clothes that meet a person the right size by random chance.

The worst of responsive design is the big screen, with resizable browsers – every movement of the browser window changes the layout and what is visible. This can never be a good design.

What I would like to see is this :

- design for two screen sizes, “sparse” and “loaded”,
- select which to load initially based on the viewing device, and
- allow the user to easily change to the other
(e.g. I often want to use the “loaded” design, the full web site, when on my iPhone or Android, just because I want all that info and the peripheral affordances offered on big screens).

Even I, who hate responsive design, am being pushed by current trends to using it. All the people I hire to do design any more uses it by reflex. And it’s really hard to make something decent on both sized screens. So I’m using it under protest, hoping it will go away soon.

(This blog started as a FB post, I’m putting it here for my other friends to see).

Heart of Agile, Collaborate section

Please add your ideas for what should be included in this section. I suggest using the following format:
(Your Name) : Subsection : specific idea, topic, or even single line of advice

for example:

(Alistair Cockburn) : Trust : Let someone else do it, and allow for failure.
(Alistair Cockburn) : Collaboration : Collaboration Cards

Anyone can edit this page, but you cannot put in any URLs. If you feel the need to include a URL for the subject or advice, leave off the http:// part and just put in the rest of it. I’ll come by later and add the http:// part.
Also, although it asks for your email id, I don’t get a copy of that, so don’t assume I know your email address from the fact that you posted. If you wish, you can send me an email to

Thanks, Alistair.

Heart of Agile, Reflect section

Please add your ideas for what should be included in this section. I suggest using the following format:
(Your Name) : Subsection : specific idea, topic, or even single line of advice

for example:

(Alistair Cockburn) : Trust : Let someone else do it, and allow for failure.
(Alistair Cockburn) : Collaboration : Collaboration Cards

Anyone can edit this page, but you cannot put in any URLs. If you feel the need to include a URL for the subject or advice, leave off the http:// part and just put in the rest of it. I’ll come by later and add the http:// part.
Also, although it asks for your email id, I don’t get a copy of that, so don’t assume I know your email address from the fact that you posted. If you wish, you can send me an email to

Thanks, Alistair.

Heart of Agile, Deliver section

Please add your ideas for what should be included in this section. I suggest using the following format:
(Your Name) : Subsection : specific idea, topic, or even single line of advice

for example:

(Alistair Cockburn) : Trust : Let someone else do it, and allow for failure.
(Alistair Cockburn) : Collaboration : Collaboration Cards

Anyone can edit this page, but you cannot put in any URLs. If you feel the need to include a URL for the subject or advice, leave off the http:// part and just put in the rest of it. I’ll come by later and add the http:// part.
Also, although it asks for your email id, I don’t get a copy of that, so don’t assume I know your email address from the fact that you posted. If you wish, you can send me an email to

Thanks, Alistair.

Heart of Agile, Improve section

Please add your ideas for what should be included in this section. I suggest using the following format:
(Your Name) : Subsection : specific idea, topic, or even single line of advice

for example:

(Alistair Cockburn) : Experiment : If you don’t experiment, you won’t make radical improvements.

Anyone can edit this page, but you cannot put in any URLs. If you feel the need to include a URL for the subject or advice, leave off the http:// part and just put in the rest of it. I’ll come by later and add the http:// part.
Also, although it asks for your email id, I don’t get a copy of that, so don’t assume I know your email address from the fact that you posted. If you wish, you can send me an email to

Thanks, Alistair.

Heart of Agile fortune teller in Japanese

An experimental tralnslation of into Japanese.



+1 : How does it feel to take turns contributing ? お互いに助け合ったらどんな気分だろう?

+1 : TRUST 信頼

+1 : Can you let someone else do it, even allow failure? 人に任せられる?失敗しても許せる?


+1 : DELIVER 提供

+1 : How might you get real feedback, from even a trial delivery? 本当のフィードバックはどうしたら得られる?お試し版からだって得る方法もあるのでは?

+1 : WIP 仕掛り作業(WIP)

+1 : What would improve if you reduced the work “in progress”? 仕掛り作業を減らせたら、いいことはあるだろうか?


+1 : REFLECT ふりかえり

+1 : What might you do to increase the team’s self-awareness? チームが自らの状況を把握できるにはどうしたらいい?

+1 : EXAMINE 観察

+1 : How does your team feel about the results? チームは結果を見てどう感じている?


+1 : IMPROVE 改善

+1 : What is one thing you might change to improve? 改善するために何かひとつだけ変えるとしたら?


+1 : Relax, it’s just an experiment! ただ実験してるだけだから心配しないで!

TsuyoshiUshio commented 12 hours ago
How might you get real feedback, from even a trial delivery? 本当のフィードバックはどうしたら得られる?試しに提供するだけでも?




yattom commented 12 hours ago

TsuyoshiUshio commented 12 hours ago

(Thank you, everyone, for contributing! Alistair)

Heart of Agile Fortune Teller in Dutch

The English text will change pretty often, but never mind.
I propose that you simply write your preferred translation directly under the English part here. (the page is editable)
If you wish an improvement, simply write it directly under the previous.
If you like a version, add 1 to the likes on the left.
If you find a better process for updating this page, propose and implement it.

    +0 : Samenwerken
    +0 : samenwerken

How does it feel to take turns contributing ?
+0 : Hoe voelt het om elk om beurt bij te dragen?

    +0 : vertrouwen

Can you let someone else do it, even allow failure?
+0 : Kan je het iemand anders laten doen, zelfs als het zou falen?

    +0 : opleveren
    +0 : opleveren

How might you get real feedback, from even a trial delivery?
+0 : Hoe kan je echte feedback krijgen, zelfs van een test oplevering?

  • WIP
    +0 : WIP

What would improve if you reduced the work “in progress”?
+0 – Wat zou er verbeteren als je het werk dat bezig is zou verminderen?

    +0 : nadenken
    +0 : nadenken

What might you do to increase the team’s self- awareness?
+0 : Wat kan je doen om het team zijn zelfbewustzijn te verhogen ?

    +0 – onderzoek

How does your team feel about the results?
+0 : Hoe voelt het team zich over de resultaten?

    +0 : Verbeter
    +0 : Verbeter

What is one thing you might change to improve?
+0 : Wat is een ding dat je kan verbeteren

    +0 : experiment

Relax, it’s just an experiment!
+0 : Ontspan het is enkel een experiment

Re: The end of software engineering and the start of economic-cooperative gaming

Hi Alistair,

I have just been re-reading your closing remarks in this paper, that economic-cooperative gaming “does not capture the thought processes of the designer-programmer while creating and manipulating the design and expression of the program. An adjunct model, picking up aspects of a mental craft, needs to be added.”

Do you have any more ideas or examples or references in this area, I wonder?

And do you see the need any further “adjunct models”, or any need to modify the gaming model?


-by Bob Corrick on 7/12/2010 at 11:12 AM

Hi, Bob – Yes there are adjunct models needed. Since 2004 I’ve added Craft, Lean processes, Design as knowledge acquisition, and most recently, the Crystal 3-step model (discussion: Re: The three steps of Crystal) that includes practices, theory and self-awareness. You can read about all but the last in Foundations for Software Engineering (discussion: Re: Foundations for Software Engineering).

I just uploaded Talk not given at TEDxUoU 018.ppt which contains all five – you can look at that.

The point is that the Cooperative Game picks up social and team strategies, but not individual ones.

  • I like best Peter Naur’s “Programming as Theory Building” (reprinted in the appendix of my ASD book) for both 1-person and N-person design assignments.
  • The Craft aspect of the full model simply says, “Get good at what you do”, which doesn’t give any real guidance.
  • The Lean aspect of the full model says to the 1-person designer, “Don’t collect inventory.”
  • The Knowledge acquisition aspect of the full model says to the 1-person designer, “Spend time on where you need knowledge”.
  • The Crystal 3-step model says to the 1-person designer, “Know thyself, and keep up with the theory in the field.”

So aside from not having specific craft guidance anywhere, the other parts of the model do offer advice to the 1-person designer.

cheers – Alistair

-by Alistair on 7/13/2010 at 11:05 AM

It´s a nice model, but it should complement software engineering, not substitute it. Management
nowadays is largely based on process, and quality thought as adherence to process(not only achieved/didn´t achieve goal). Any economic activity can be thought as goal-directed or process oriented, depending on how you view it.
Virtually all activities can be thought as games, process, or both.

-by Rafael on 11/12/2010 at 10:24 PM

Thank you
Your blog is very nice and informative.

-by seo services delhi on 2/16/2012 at 12:28 AM

The end of software engineering and the start of economic-cooperative gaming

Humans and Technology Technical Report, HaT TR 2004.02, Jan 14, 2004

This paper was invited for the first issue of the ComSIS Journal, Computer Science and Information System (, appearing in the Feb 2004 inaugural issue:


“Software engineering” was introduced as a model for the field of software development in 1968. This paper reconsiders that model in the light of four decades of experience, and finds it lacking in its ability to explain project success and failures, predict important issues in running projects, and help practitioners formulate effective strategies on the fly.

An alternative underlying model for software development is described: Software development is a series of goal-directed, resource-limited, cooperative games of invention and communication. The primary goal of each game is the production and deployment of a software system; the residue of the game is a set of markers to assist the players of the next game. People use markers and props to remind, inspire and inform each other in getting to the next move in the game. The next game is an alteration of the system or the creation of a neighboring system. Each game therefore has as a secondary goal to create an advantageous position for the next game. Since each game is resource-limited, the primary and secondary goals compete for resources.

The cooperative-game model provides the benefits that the software engineering model misses: It raises to the proper priority level issues crucial to successful software projects; it explains how, historically, teams with messy-looking processes sometimes outperform others with tidier processes; and it helps busy practitioners decide how to respond to unexpected situations. Finally, it is seen that much of engineering in the general belongs in the category of resource-limited, cooperative games.

I. Introduction

Software development is not “naturally” a branch of engineering. It was proposed as being a branch of engineering in 1968 as a deliberate provocation intended to stir people to new action [Naur-Randell]. As a provocation, it succeeded. As a means for providing sound advice to busy practitioners, however, it cannot be considered a success. After 35 years of using this model, our field lacks a notable project success rate [Standish], we do not find a correlation between project success and use of tidy “engineering” development processes [Cockburn 2003a], and we do not find practitioners able to derive practical advice to pressing problems on live projects.

One might defend the software engineering model by asserting that this is due to our not yet doing enough “software engineering.” However, project debriefings show that some very messy-looking projects succeed quite nicely while many process-oriented projects fail quite badly. Opposites of both occur as well, making it difficult to see what does correlate with project success. Whatever does correlate with project success, it does not appear to be tidiness of the process, or the amount of “engineering” used [Cockburn 2000a, 2003a].

The term “software engineering” fails a crucial test, that of suggesting good actions to the busy practitioner. If told to “do more software-engineering” on their current projects, would project managers, executives, programmers and testers

  • produce similar interpretations of this phrase?
  • be correct with respect to what the term software engineering really calls for?
  • produce good advice for the project at hand?

When I ask people what it would mean for them to “do more software-engineering,” they usually return a blank look. The answer, when if comes, usually involves their doing more intense modeling of the system to establish a priori its correctness and verisimilitude (match to the real world), spending more time on estimation of cost and time, and in general looking to construct a software equivalent to mass-production manufacturing facilities. As discussed below, these are not actually what is called for in engineering at all, and worst of all, they are often not good strategies for leading the project to success.

The failure of the software engineering model leaves our field needing an underlying model that

  • explains why successful projects succeed and failing projects fail,
  • intrinsically names topics known to be important to project success, and
  • leads the person on a live project to derive sensible advice as to how to proceed.

In this paper, I describe a new model for software development: A series of resource-limited, goal-directed, cooperative games of invention and communication. The new model explains historical data, can be converted intuitively by people on projects into meaningful strategies, identifies a lexicon of terms that correlate well to project success and failure, and points to future topics of research for our field as well as pointing to what results to borrow from other fields.

The primary use of the new model is in creating strategies for managing software development. It creates space for, without completing, an adjunct model that should cover the thought processes of the designer-programmer while creating and manipulating the design and expression of the program. This adjunct model, which may derive from craftsmanship [McBreen], will have a natural fit into the framework created by the economic-cooperative game model.

The paper is structured in five sections:

Section II,Cooperative Games, breaks apart the terms in the cooperative game model, showing their relation to software development projects. The new model is presented first in order to highlight concepts that are important to have in view when reviewing the historical record.

Section III, Software Engineering, examines the origin of the term software engineering, discusses the failure of the term to either correlate to project success or to offer good advice to busy practitioners, and presents project experience reports that are anomalous to the software engineering lexicon but natural in the cooperative game lexicon.

Section IV, Engineering in Action, reexamines engineering itself, showing that if the term engineering were properly interpreted, then the term software engineering would have a very different connotation today. Engineering is seen also to be an economic-cooperative game of invention and communication. The poisoning of the term “engineering” after WWII can be seen to contribute to the failure of the term “software engineering.”

Section V, Future Research, looks at how the cooperative game lexicon points to research topics for our field.

Section VI. Summary, recapitulates the essential points of the paper.

II. Cooperative Games

Viewing software development as a “series of resource-limited, cooperative games of invention and communication” meets the objectives for an underlying model of our field:

  • It lets us make sense of historical successes and failures.
  • It names at the top priority level a set of topics that are known to be important to project success but do not normally have a place to live in discussions of software development, topics such as community, amicability, morale, talent, trust, proximity, and sufficiency.
  • It offers immediately usable advice to people busy on live projects.

Let us look at the core concepts arising from the model and how they relate to successful software projects.

Games, Cooperative Games, Series’ of Games

Although the Miriam-Webster dictionary defines game only as “an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” [Webster], the term has grown considerably in scope over the last century. Some managers resist the idea of software development as any kind of ‘game’ because, as one manager retorted, “We are not here for amusement”. Managers obviously do not want frivolous, non-productive use of time on their projects, for reasons that will become more clear as we examine the economically overconstrained game that is software development. While fun generally is implicit in common uses of the term (and, indeed, it is a good thing to find people having fun on a project; see the discussion of morale below), “games” are no longer only about frivolous or non-productive activities.

The range of what currently falls into the category of games is so broad that it is very difficult to find something in common across all of them. Wittgenstein [1953] discusses _rule following_as essential to the concept, in that a ‘game’ ceases to exist at the moment the players decide to stop following its rules (a game is therefore a voluntary activity to the extent that the players have the choice to act in another way). Games consist of “moves” toward or away from some target, with some sort of measurement against the distance from the target.

Some games are solo, some are group-based. Some center around achieving a goal, while others center on interactions between the participants. Some only last minutes or seconds, while others last years, even lifetimes. In finding a home for software development, I find three categorizations of a game useful:

  • It may be finite or infinite in nature.
  • It may be competitive or cooperative.
  • It may be terminated after a goal is achieved (including time-termination of the game), or it may have no distinct endpoint (it just ends whenever it ends).

The purpose of an infinite game is to keep playing the game [Carse]. Individuals, organizations and countries play infinite games of survival. Individual people play the infinite game of managing their careers (so they may act to enhance their market value at the expense of the project). Government contractors arrange and rearrange staff on any one contract, possibly creating sub-optimal results for that contract, as moves in an infinite game of obtaining more contracts. It can be seen that these infinite games interfere with optimal play of a single project, and the project leaders have to contend with that interference as part of their project strategy.

Among _finite_games, some come to an end as soon as a goal is achieved, others come to an end just whenever they happen to stop. Within each category, some are competitive, others are cooperative. Tennis and chess are competitive, goal-terminating games. The children’s game “king of the hill” (fighting to defend the top of a hill from the other children) is competitive but not goal-terminated. The children keep playing after, and particularly after, one of them becomes the new king of the hill. They stop only when it gets too dark to continue or they are called in. Poker is similarly a competitive game with an arbitrary ending point. In the open-ended cooperative games category we find jazz music and dancing. In both these cases, people focus on the quality of their interactions and the group performance, and the game stays in play for as long as the people decide to keep going.

The category remaining is the _goal-terminated cooperative_game. In this category we find rock and mountain climbing, exploration expeditions of all sorts, and software development. The terminating goal for rock climbing is reaching the top of the cliff face; it is with respect to that that the team first evaluates its efforts. After that, they ask whether it was a good climb, or a pleasant one, or an interesting one. First and foremost, though, the team needs to complete the climb.

A software project has much in common with rock climbing. The primary goal is to deploy the system. It is with respect to this goal that the team is first evaluated. After that, one may ask whether it was a fun project, or well-run, or the program is aesthetic or maintainable. If the team does not deliver the software, however, the project is generally considered a failure. (Note: it is possible – and often a good idea – to abandon the game in the middle when detecting that the goal no longer worthwhile.)

One notable difference between software projects and rock-climbing is that software projects come in series and build upon each other in ways that climbing trips do not. In software, a team will alter the deployed system, or develop an adjacent system that interfaces with it.

Thus, unlike a rock-climbing trip, a software project has two goals:

  • To deliver the system;
  • To set up for the next game.

The full evaluation of the project therefore includes, first, whether the system was delivered, and second, to what extent an advantageous position was created for the next game.

These two goals compete for resources. The team can deliver the system more quickly if the system will not have to be extended in the future. (It can deliver the system much, much sooner if bugs will not have to be fixed!) Or, the team can set in place a better software architecture and more training and documentation for their successors at the expense of delaying or even preventing the current delivery.

Since project teams are limited in time, money, and people, it is not possible to perfect both goals. Most project teams are happy to achieve the first goal and any modicum of the second. Even project teams having extensive resources find the second goal to be is essentially unbounded in scope. In general, a team can at best hope to deliver an acceptable system in a named time-frame, with acceptable but imperfect preparation for the future games.

To understand the shift of strategies that occurs when working with games series’, let us construct another resource-limited cooperative game and examine it. Consider a race across an uncharted swampland in which some particular (unknown) artifact must be produced at some particular (unknown) place in the swamp. A team in this race would employ scouts and specialists of various sorts, and would create maps, route markings, bridges and so on. They racers would not, however, construct commercial quality maps, roads or bridges, since doing so would waste precious resources. Instead, they would estimate how much or little of a path must be cleared for themselves, how strong to build the bridge, how fancy of markings to make, how simple a map, in order to reach their goal in the shortest time.

If the race is run as part of a series, there will be new teammates coming after them to pick up the artifact and move it to a new place. The first team will therefore be well served to make slightly better paths, maps and bridges, always keeping in mind that doing this work competes with completing the current stage of the race. They also will be well served if they leave some people who understand the territory to be part of the next team. Thus, the optimal strategies for a series of races are different than for a single race.

There is no closed-form formula for winning the game. There are only strategies that are more useful in particular situations. That realization alone may be the strongest return for using the economic-cooperative game language: people on live projects see that they must use their minds at all times to observe the characteristics of the changing situation, to collect known strategies, to invent new strategies on the fly; and that since a perfect outcome is not possible in an overconstrained situation, they much choose which outcome to prioritize at the expense of which others.

Cooperating and Communicating

At its core, software development is people inventing and communicating,

  • solving a problem that they do not fully understand, which keeps changing underneath them,
  • creating a solution that they do not fully understand, which also keeps changing underneath them, and
  • expressing their thoughts in artificial and limited languages that they do not fully understand and that also keep changing underneath them, to an interpreter that is unforgiving of error,

where every choice has economic consequences, and resources are limited. Software development is a resource-limited, goal-directed, cooperative game, whose moves consist of invention and communication. The people, who are inventing, manipulating and communicating information across multiple heads, must share their information in order to produce the solution.

This means the speed of the project is proportional to the speed at which information moves between people’s heads. Every obstacle to detecting and moving information between heads slows the project. Understanding and attending to this issue is essential to playing the game effectively.

The following terms are elements of the cooperative game lexicon, and are concepts that help people both understand and steer projects:

  • Ability, a combination of talent and skills development. Raw talent provides the ability to invent better solutions or see patterns faster. People can increase their skills in an area according to their talent. The combination of talent with developed skills produces a person’s ability in an area. Teams with greater ability in key areas have the potential to do better (whether they actually will do so depends on their strategies, as well as issues of community, communication, and motivation).
  • Community, involving amicability, trust, morale and shared experience. Amicability is “the willingness to listen with good will.” As amicability decreases, people withhold information from each other or do not listen when provided information. Amicability is fed by trust and morale. Some people are initially trusting, and have high trust until they are hurt. Others are initially untrusting, and will only reach high trust after many demonstrations of competence and non-damaging behavior by the people around them. Their experiences as a group feed their ongoing trust, morale and amicability levels [Brown] [Tyler].
  • Communication, based on shared vocabulary, proximity, and communication technologies. The team members’ shared experiences give them not only a basis for trust, but also a vocabulary of references that they use to speed their communication. Communication involves not only deliberate but also accidental signaling of information, as comes from worried, happy, or relaxed body expressions. The closer people are physically, the more verbal and non-verbal cues they pick up from each other, which speeds the communication. As they move farther away, the greater the role of communication technologies in simulating proximity and the more inventive they have to be in using it (see, for example, [Herring]).
  • Individuals. With hundreds of thousands of software development specialists now in the world, statistical characteristics apply to general ability levels available. However, software development is an activity of building and passing along understanding, which is sensitive to the chemistry between individual pairs of people and within groups of people. Thus, on any one project, people operate and must be managed at the level of individuals. On any given day, they are individuals in action, as opposed to roles in action.

It is easy to think that “communicating a design” is nothing more than capturing its current shape in a particular descriptive format, such as the Unified Modeling Language. However, communication is not mere “transmission of information” [Maturana]. Communication, which may be thought of as “touching into a shared experience” with another person [Cockburn 2002a] takes forms that depends on the experiences shared between the individual people involved. People who have worked together before communicate through abbreviated references to previous designs and previous situations. Those with only a broad common understanding of algorithms and design patterns communicate more laboriously through references to those algorithms and design patterns. The remainder are reduced to using simple alphabetic documentation forms such as UML or comments in the code.

As Peter Naur showed in his discussion of “Programming as Theory Building” [Naur] what must be transferred is understanding, which is not conveyed through documentation languages and design snapshots, but is built internally by each person individually, based upon their previous knowledge. Conveying understanding is aided by showing what had been but got changed, what was rejected, and the rationales involved. This often requires direct dialogue between the people.

Since communication happens through every perceptible body movement of each participant, it happens faster when line-of-sight and multiple modalities of communication, such as gesturing, speaking, drawing, and moving, are available [McCarthy] [Cockburn 2002a]. Thus, in a resource-limited game of intensive communication, a superior strategy will often be to let people talk to each other in the same room, and photograph whiteboards or videotape their discussions, managing to be at once faster, richer, less expensive, and better suited to conveying understanding.

Interestingly, in playing this constantly shifting game, even contrary strategies do become appropriate on occasion; see for example the Cone of Silence strategy for an example of deliberately making communication more difficult [Cockburn 2003b].


Invention is required at every level of the game. Users invent what they believe will prove useful in their future work, developers invent designs, testers invent tests for the system, managers invent overall project strategies for shifting situations.

Some work has been done on invention techniques: brainstorming techniques [Bordia], paper-based prototyping for user interface design [Ehn] [Snyder], CRC cards for object-oriented design [Beck], or simply discussing ideas at whiteboards, possibly using standardized design notations during discussions [Ambler]. There are some non-obvious factors in setting up invention environments, such as concealing the relative social status of the participants in order that ideas not be unduly promoted or tainted by knowledge of the suggestor’s social rank [Bordia] [Weisband] [Markus]. More research of this sort is needed.

During invention, people use specialized props and specific communication modes so that ideas in their minds become externally available for examination by themselves and others. That may call for informal props such as flipcharts, drawn timelines, index cards or sticky notes, or it may call for formal graphs, tables, and models. It is important to note that these items are transient: the value they provide is during the session. Archiving them for future use is a separate strategy in the economic game of communication. People often conflate these transient props with the more permanent markers used to remind or inform.

Props and Markers

A person may create a prop to help in making a move, or may create a marker for the next person (who might be him- or herself some time later). Each prop or marker has one of three functions and optimal forms:

  • To remind the participants of something they decided or discussed. This is communication to themselves in the future. Photographs of whiteboard discussions, rolled up flipchart drawings, napkins from restaurants and the like are very effective, not just because they are inexpensive, but also because the very imperfections in the materials serve to bring to mind the context of the earlier discussion. Obviously, the material conveys less information to people who were not present. Knowing that the purpose of these markers is only to remind themselves, the team can decide to use very rough and inexpensive markers for this purpose. Agile software development approaches [Highsmith] emphasize the use of these sorts of inexpensive reminder markers.
  • To inspire a new thought in the participants. This is the invention or exploration component. Tactile props, such as paper-based user interface prototypes [Snyder], CRC cards [Beck], brainstorming cards, even stuffed animals, are intended to stimulate new neural connections in the handler through the involvement of multiple modalities. Visual-analytical props, which include simulation outputs, graphs charts, specifications, and analytical or descriptive (UML-type) models allow the handler to examine and reflect on the state of their current understanding. Not intended for communicating across time, the results of the exploration session must be recast into a reminder form. Just which reminder form to cast them into is an economic decision. The team decides after each session for whom, for what purpose and how to retain the results.
  • To inform a newcomer. This marker in intended to bring the newcomer some distance toward the group’s total understanding of the situation. It is not possible to bring the person to a complete understanding of the situation [Naur] [Cockburn 2002a], so the economic decisions to be made are how much time to spend on constructing it and how much information to try to put into it. This is the most expensive marker, since the newcomers have the least amount of shared understanding with the rest of the team. The marker has to bring them from a more remote starting point, using a more generic set of references. The software engineering field has traditionally emphasized the informing category of marker, with an eye to allowing total staff changeover.

Markers include people as well as artifacts. The richest marker a team can leave in place for the next team is a person from the previous team, who can inform__the new participants in ways and with efficiencies that no artifact can match. For just this reason, it is a common strategy to leave some number of people from the former team in place for the next game. Without those people, informing the next team is generally too expensive and too slow for the economics of the next game.

The inevitable economic tension comes from the degradation of understanding that occurs with each change in team members, placed against the need to allow changeover of the team. Reminding markers are optimal as long as the same team stays in the game, informing markers are critical if there will be a drastic team change. Over the course of a few games, the organization may be able to keep the same team in place, but eventually, of course, there will be no one left from the original team. Thus, it is generally faulty strategy to use only reminding markers or only informing markers, only artifacts or only people as informing markers. The organization’s executives and the team have to choose between various imperfect solutions to this problem.

Team Evolution in the Game Series

Occasionally, a group of people works through the strengths and differences of the various individuals involved, and becomes a “jelled” team [DeMarco].

There are several reasons to keep jelled teams intact.

  • They have an internal memory of the paths taken, and so require much smaller set of reminding markers and very little in the way of informing markers, thus saving on marker-construction costs.
  • They have developed very rich shared experiences, so their communication is very much faster than another group.
  • Finally, they have sorted out their issues of community and trust, which each new team must work through as part of learning to work together.

It is tempting for the manager to split the team into pieces so that each person can “communicate” to other teams whatever it is that the team had learned. Doing this operates from the idea that one person can “seed” other teams or that it is possible to “graft” one piece of a team onto another, as one does with a tree or vine.

However, playing the analogy game, a jelled team is not so much like a plant as it is like a racehorse, all of whose parts have slowly been brought to optimal function. Transferring a person from one team to another is therefore more like cutting off one of the racehorse’s legs and grafting it onto a second horse. Experienced managers recognize that each group of people must work through their individual issues of personality and community themselves, in order to build their own communication pathways and shared experiences.

Maintaining a working team while introducing new people into it is a third overconstrained problem facing the manager. A manager might introduce new people onto the team in a slow stream, or according to the Progress Team / Training Team(alias_Day Care_) strategy [Cockburn 1998], so that each person can come to know the workings of the community without disrupting the others. Or the manager might use an apprenticeship model, such as pair programming [Williams] allowing efficient, person-to-person mechanisms to inform the new person about the project’s situation.


Software development is resource-limited and overconstrained in several dimensions:

  • Delivering the system soon and inexpensively competes with creating an advantageous position for the next game.
  • Creating inexpensive markers competes with creating them to work for a wider range of new people.
  • Keeping the team intact competes with introducing new people.
  • Using a smaller number of highly qualified people (with lower communication costs) competes with using more people of more average capability.

A project is always off balance in one of these dimensions. While making maximum forward progress, the team reduces documentation or training; while bringing the documentation up to date or training new people, it reduces forward progress. The static equilibrium that is so often sought, is not possible. There is at best dynamic equilibrium, where each move corrects one out-of-balance quality by putting some other quality out of balance. The team is continually playing a game of brinkmanship with its resources, producing results that are adequate or sufficient with respect to their respective purposes.

The effective game player recognizes that a model or piece of documentation need not be complete, current or even correct to be useful. A reminding marker need only be sufficient to remind the recipients, a prop need only be sufficient to allow people to create an interesting next move, and an informing marker needs only to be sufficient to allow the new person to ask a good question or look at another informing marker. “Adequate” is a fine condition for a communication device if the team is in a race and short on resources.

The notion of sufficiency-in-communication allows us to explain the success of many projects that succeeded despite their “obviously” incomplete documents and sloppy processes (several examples are presented in the next section). They succeeded because people made good choices in stopping work on certain communications as soon as they reached sufficiency_,_ and before diminishing returns set in.

This is the second place where busy practitioners get usable advice from the cooperative game model. Weighing the cost of alternatives, people on live projects understand they must choose which activities to amplify and which to stop, given their current position and priorities. They shift their requests. They accept that design documents can be hints into the code, instead of up-to-date with the code They use the project plan for strategizing, rather than expecting it to always match the current state of the project. They ask the requirements gatherers to capture just enough information to communicate to the specific designers present on the project (as opposed to some idealized set of designers). They replace typing with faster communications, such as visits in person or short video clips. Above all, they make different choices depending on whether the designers are expert and sitting close by each other, or novice and working in different time zones, whether the system is likely to kill someone if it fails, or just cause inconvenience [Cockburn 2000b].

In theory, their choices will take into accountthe needs of both the current game and the following games. However, it often happens that the people making these decision are those accountable for delivering _this and only this_system. They naturally optimize for the current game at the expense of the succeeding game (which is a good strategy over a short number of games, but eventually self-destructive). The cooperative game model offers a response to this fallibility – in order to protect the interests of the succeeding games, a decision-maker should be present who both has a direct influence on the present game and a direct interest in the outcomes of the succeeding games. Whether such a person actually is present is just another aspect of playing the game well or poorly. The game concept does not prevent a group from playing poorly; it does provide an explanation of what constitutes better or worse play.

Economics and Games

Casting software development into the language of economically limited cooperative games brings into play fields of research not normally not associated with software development: economics and options theory. Some limited work has been done in viewing software decision-making through options trading and financial planning[Sullivan] [Denne] [Reinertsen] [Cockburn 2002b]. We might hope that informatics researchers can make some of this material relevant to practical project management; in raw form, the results are out of reach of the average practitioner. The body of economic theory targeting choice-making under imperfect circumstances is a promising but still untouched area waiting to be investigated in the context of developing software.

Precursors: Pelle Ehn’s Language Games

In 1988, Pelle Ehn built upon Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games” [Wittgenstein] to develop the idea of software development as a language-game itself [Ehn]. To Ehn, that ongoing language-game involves not only verbal communication, but also activity-based communication, specifically learning-by-doing and communicating-by-doing. Ehn describes software development as making moves in this language-game to evolve a common understanding of the forthcoming system. He discusses artifacts as markers, including both the final system as well as intermediary design artifacts as markers. He writes (his italics):

Every move in the language-game of designing is a local experiment, where the initial moves often must be reframed, as the changed situation most often deviates from the initial appreciation. . . . In the conversation with the materials of the situation, the designer can never make a move that has only intended implications. The design material is continually talking back to him. This causes him to apprehend unanticipated problems and potentials, which become the basis for further moves. (p. 230).

Artifacts can support both _communicative_and instrumental activities . . . toward other humans or towards ‘objects.’ (p. 162)

In the language-game of design we use these artifacts as reminders and paradigm cases for our reflections on future computer artifacts and their use. The use of design artifacts brings earlier experiences to out mind and it ‘bends’ our way of thinking of the past and the future. . . . this is how they ‘inform’ our practice. If they are good design artifacts, they support good moves within a specific design-language-game. (pp. 109-100)

... models of computer systems architecture, information system models, program specifications etc. . . . These kinds of artifacts support reflection. (p. 169)

. . . prototypes, mock-ups, scenarios with role playing, etc. . . . also allow for involved practical experience, not just detached reflections. . . . they can be used as reminders or paradigm cases . . of practical understanding. (p. 169)

Recognizing the impossibility of perfect communication between people, Ehn primarily focuses on the communication between developers and users of a system:

... paradoxical as it sounds, users and designers do not really have to understand each other in playing language-games of design-by-doing together. Participation in a language-game of design and the use of design artifacts can make constructive but different sense, to users and designers. (p. 118).

... it is hard to see how we as designers of computer artifacts for page make-up could manage to come up with useful designs without understanding how the knife is used or what counts as good layout. For this purpose, we had to have access to more than what can be stated as explicit propositional knowledge. This we could only achieve by at least to some extent participating in the language-games of use of the artifacts. (p. 116)

Hence, what designers (and users, I would like to add) do and know, to a great extent has to be experienced in practice, not for some romantic or mystical reason, but because it is literally indescribably in linguistic terms. (p. 214)

Ehn’s ideas are clearly source to, and an intrinsic part of the cooperative game concept described in this paper. However, even though he writes,

The rule-following behavior of being able to play together with others is more fundamental to a game than explicit regulative rules. Playing is interaction and cooperation (p. 106),

he does not develop the economics of the cooperative and group communicative aspects of the language-game, the fact that a team consists of multiple minds using multiple languages, all out of sync with each other. Not only does each move in the game involve multiple people, but there is an cost to pulling the minds closer (but never fully) together. Also missing is the notion of achieving a goal. The team is not simply “getting together to design” or to “build language”; the team is charged with producing something specific in a time-frame.

If we add three elements to Ehn’s language-game concept,

  • the goal-directedness of the assignment,
  • the economic constraints, and
  • minds separated by experience and distance,

we derive the economic-cooperative game model of this paper.

Cooperative Gaming at the 1968 NATO Conference

The term “software engineering” was coined for the 1968 NATO Conference on Software Engineering [Naur-Randell]. We look at their construction of the term in the next section, but it is useful here to extract from those proceedings a few sample quotes that illustrate to what extent they were already referencing the above concepts.. Here are sample statements from attendees at that conference, marked with terms from the lexicon:

Individuals: “I would never dare to quote on a project unless I knew the people who were to be involved.” (Fraser, p. 50)

Communication: “We could use more and better and faster communication in a software group as a partial substitute for a science of software production. We cannot define the interfaces, we do not really know what we’re doing, so we must get in a position where we can talk across the interfaces. (Buxton, p. 53) [Ed. note: compare with the description of talking across interfaces at Lockheed’s Skunk Works engineering facility, in Section IV]

Communication and communication technologies: “An attack on the problem of communication is crucial for successful production. We are not using automation (remote consoles, text editing, etc.) as much as we should.” (Gillette, p. 53)

Amicability: ”. . . if I’m setting up a software group to carry out a project I’m extremely careful that all the people working on it are close personal friends, because then they will talk together frequently, and there will be strong lines of communication in all directions. One in fact uses personal relationships to support technical communication.” (Buxton, p. 53)

Shared experience: ”. . . if I were suddenly to recruit you lot and form a rather good software house it would be excellent publicity, but it would not actually work. It certainly wouldn’t work at first, because you do not have a sufficient level of communication. One way to obtain this is by a commonality of experience. This is a major difficulty because it leads exactly to the point made by Buxton. It encourages you to work with your friends. But you have to remember that those who are incompetent find each other’s company congenial.” (D’Agapeyeff, p. 55)

Detecting information: “It is relatively easy to set up a communication system, manual or automatic, which will let me find information that I already realize I need to know. It is more difficult to make sure I also get information which I need, but of whose very existence I am ignorant.” (Randell, p. 55).

Detecting information: (An unintended response to Randell’s problem) *”*There was a fourth communications mechanism which every project has, and which perhaps does not get encouraged as much as it should be. There are certain people in any organization who are remarkably effective at passing gossip. Many of the potential troubles in a system can be brought into the open, or even solved, by encouraging a bit of gossip.” (Fraser, p. 55)

Strategies in unknown territory: “Only one thing seems to be clear just now. It is that program construction is not always a simple progression in which each act of assembly represents a distinct forward step and that the final product can be described simply as the sum of many sub-assemblies. (Fraser, p. 11)

III. Software Engineering

To understand the failure of the software engineering model and the need to replace it, we need to understand how that model originated, how it is failing, and what anomalies need explaining by the new model.

The 1968 NATO Conference and Software Engineering

The software engineering model came as a “provocative” action in chartering the 1968 NATO Software Engineering Conference [Naur-Randell]. In the words of the conference organizers:


... In the Autumn of 1967 the Science Committee established a Study Group on Computer Science. The Study Group was given the task of assessing the entire field of computer science, and in particular, elaborating the suggestions of the Science Committee.

The Study Group concentrated on possible actions which would merit an international, rather than a national effort. In particular it focussed its attentions on the problems of software. In late 1967 the Study Group recommended the holding of a working conference on Software Engineering. The phrase ‘software engineering’ was deliberately chosen as being provocative, in implying the need for software manufacture to be based on the types of theoretical foundations and practical disciplines, that are traditional in the established branches of engineering. (p.8)

Despite having the term as a focal point for the conference, the participants showed little understanding of either the term “software engineering” or engineering in general, and provide little guidance as to just what readers are supposed to infer from the term “software engineering.” Alan Perlis’ keynote speech contains the following:

This is the first conference ever held on software engineering and it behooves us to take this conference quite seriously since it will likely set the tone of future work in this field in much the same way that Algol did. We should take quite seriously both the scientific and engineering components of software, but our concentration must be on the latter. (p.78)

Unfortunately, that is all he offers on the intention of the term. We pick from the following sentence the hint that making people interchangeable is a core part of its success criteria.

Stability in our goals, products and performances can only be achieved when accompanied by a sufficient supply of workers who are properly trained, motivated, and interchangeable. (Perlis, p. 79)

Ross offers the following thought on why software development is “engineering”:

I agree very strongly that our field is in the engineering domain, for the reason that our main purpose is to do something for somebody. (Ross, p.74)

Since all of volunteerism is about “doing something for somebody,” the above sentence does not advance our understanding much. We would not want for all volunteer activities to be brought inside the engineering discipline. It is possible that Ross was thinking of the dictionary definition of engineering (“the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to man” [Webster]). However, that definition runs into a problem straight away, since programming is not about harnessing the “properties of matter” nor the “sources of energy in nature.”

David introduces the “utility” aspect of engineering:

Software engineering and computing engineering have an extremely important and nice aspect to them, namely that people want to work on things that meet other people’s needs. They are not interested in working on abstractions entirely, they want to have an impact on the world. This is the real strength of computing today, and it is the essence of engineering. (David, p.74)

David also worries about the direction that engineering education is taking:

Incidentally, I think that a lot of engineering education in the United States is stuck in the mud. (p. 74).

We shall see, in Section IV,“Historical Origins of the “Engineering Myth’,” why he might feel this way.

In short, the conference attendees were not asserting that software development is actually engineering (whatever that might mean), but rather, they presuppose that it will be fruitful to consider software development as engineering, for whatever benefits that might bring.

Their provocative phrase has had a good run of 35 years. It is quite reasonable that after this length of time we reconsider whether it really is the most appropriate and fruitful term to use for our practitioners’ activities.

Failure of “Software Engineering” in the Present Day

If the term they coined in 1968 had performed properly, we should be able to find after 35 years of use that

  • people in the industry have a similar interpretation for what the term intends;
  • the interpretation provides good advice on live projects; and
  • the correct application of the term correlates to more successful projects.

I find people using the term “engineering” to mean

  • building models [SEED],
  • looking up the answers in code books.
  • balancing design trade-offs in the face of conflicting demands.
  • predictable and repeatable methods and outcomes.
  • that a project runs like a modern factory with statistical controls.
  • “the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to man” (Webster’s 1977).

The model-building interpretation was put in strongest form by Ivar Jacobson as “software development _is_model building” [Jacobson, public talks]. This view carries with it the implication that the more model building one is doing, the greater the completeness and verisimilitude of the model, the better a job one is performing. In this interpretation, lots of model building should correlate to project success. Experience runs to the contrary, however. One experienced designer raised the appropriate objection this way,

“I feel when I start modeling that I am doing something useful. However, after a time, I find that I am more fiddling with the model than making real progress, and it is never clear when I passed the point of diminishing returns. Nobody ever talks about when I should stop modeling.” (Colaizzi, private communication)

In other words, building models may be useful, but also may be counterproductive. How is a person to decide which? The term “software engineering” does not give a useful clue in the way that sufficiency-in-communication does.

Several of the interpretations of the term “engineering” confuse the activity of doing engineering with the results after having done engineering. People often mean, “Make software development more like running a factory, with statistical quality controls.” However, running the factory is not the act of doing engineering, it is what comes after the engineering activity is finished. Designing the plant was the act of doing engineering, and it was a creative act, fundamentally non-repeatable and very sensitive to the characteristics of the people doing the work.

Nor is the dictionary definition useful. Converted to verb form, it advises us to “apply more of science and mathematics.” Indeed, it is clear that a portion of software development depends on mathematics, and early efforts in software engineering did usefully revolve around maximizing the contribution of mathematics to solve programming problems. This work led to efficient algorithms for searching, sorting, encryption, distributed control and compiler generation among others. The mistake lies in thinking that software development is mostly mathematics. It may well be that the role of mathematics in software development has passed its peak.

The phrase, “do more software-engineering,” besides generating confusion, seems mostly to generate guilt. People are sure they have not done enough of something, without being clear as to what that something is. This notion of guilt was vividly illustrated in a recent interview with a programmer I’ll call NJ, one of two programmers in a four-person company. He asked me for help in discovering what they needed to do more of in their development methodology. Here is an approximate transcript of our discussion:

NJ: I think we’re not doing enough of something, but I do not know what.
AC: Are you getting software out every few weeks or each month?
NJ: Yes.
AC: How are the bugs – are the bug counts high?
NJ: No, they’re fine.
AC: What about the company owners – are they happy with the rate of progress and what they see being delivered?
NJ: Yes.
AC: Are there any particular problems that you can see now, or in the near future, either with the software, its quality, or the documentation you have for it?
NJ: No.
AC: If there is nothing wrong with the way you are working, why are you asking for something to change?
NJ: It just seems too simple. I feel like we should be doing something more, and I thought you could tell us what we’re not doing enough of.

We as a community do not know what the term “software engineering” means after 35 years. Without that common understanding, it is of course hard to get people to do more of it.

Nor has project success become standard over the years, despite 35 years, establishment of “software engineering” as a valid university curriculum around the world, and the creation of the Software Engineering Institute. The Standish Report of 2003 indicates a success rate of only 34% of projects, with 15% outright failures and 51% of project in what they consider the “challenged” state [Standish]. In my own comparisons of projects [Cockburn 2000a, Cockburn 2003a], I found that

  • almost any process can be made to work on some project;
  • any process can manage to fail on some project;
  • heavy processes can be successful,
  • light processes are more often successful, and more importantly, the people on those projects credit the success to the lightness of the process.

The software engineering model does not predict the high success rate of lightweight (low-ceremony) process and the low success of very-high-ceremony process. Obviously, poor management is a non-methodological factor of greatest significance, but even normalizing for that does not give meaningful predictions.

Explaining Anomalies

Many experienced developers are not surprised by the above results. It is exactly that lack of surprise that deserves investigation. What is the experienced developer looking at to gauge the likelihood of success of any given project, if not similarity to “engineering”?

In 1991, I began interviewing and debriefing project teams as part of constructing a new methodology for the IBM Consulting Group. In each interview, I asked people at several different levels of control (project manager and programmer, for example) what they had done, what they thought worked well for them, what they would do differently, and what their priorities were [Cockburn 1998, Cockburn 2003a]. What caught me most by surprise was that they did not talk much about the subjects I had expected them to, particularly modeling tools, and modeling in general. In fact, those tended to be the items they put lowest on the list of priorities [Cockburn 1998, pp. 62-63].

Instead, I encountered sentences that did not make any sense to me at the time I wrote them down. One successful leader said:

“Give me a maximum of four people working in one big room, and access to our users and we’ll deliver software to them every month or two. That’s all I need. If you make me have more people, I could use eight people in two rooms. But not more.”

It is tempting to suggest that this person is not a competent manager, being unable to work with more than eight people. But that is not what he is expressing. He is describing what does work, at least for him.

Another sentence that took a long time for me to notice, was the reference to pride-in-work:

“I mean, it works. It’s not broken. But it’s not as though I drive home feeling proud of the work I’ve done during the day.”

However, the sentence that kept showing up and eluded my understanding was this one:

“At key moments, a few key people stepped in and did whatever was needed.”

I could not find a satisfactory way to understand this. Was it heroism in a form that signaled poor project management? Why did so many successful project teams refer to it with pride instead of embarrassment? Should it be stamped out, or harnessed? The “software engineering” model did not provide any advice here.

These sorts of anomalies show up in the oldest case studies. In the late 1960s, Gerald Weinberg described the negative effects of removing a bank of vending machines. Note how his, and the other excerpts in this section, are naturally matched by the cooperative game lexicon:

[At] at large university computing center . . . a large common space was provided near the return window, so that the students and other users could work on their programming problems. In the adjoining room, the center provided a consulting service for difficult problems, staffed by two graduate assistants.

At one end of the common room was a collection of vending machines . . . the noise from the revelers congregating at the machines often became more than some of the workers could bear. . . . [The computing center manager] went to investigate their complaint. . . . Without more than fifteen seconds of observation he went back to his office and inaugurated action to have the machines removed to some remote spot.

The week after the machines had been removed––and signs urging quiet had been posted all around––the manager received another delegation. . . . They had come to complain about the lack of consulting service; and, indeed, when he went to look for himself, he saw two long lines extending out of the consulting room into the common room. He spoke to the consultants to ask them why they were suddenly so slow in servicing their clients . . . For some reason, they said, there were just a lot more people needing advice than there used to be.

The manager spent two weeks checking for a possible source of the increased load, but all courses and other users were carrying on normally. . . . After some time, he discovered the source of the problem. It was the vending machines!

When the vending machines had been in the common room, a large crowd always hovered around them––but not necessarily for fol-de-rol, as the manager had so quickly assumed. True, they were drinking coffee and chatting, but they were chatting about their programs. . . . Since most of the student problems were similar, the chances were very high that he could find someone who knew what was wrong with his program right there at the vending machines. Through this informal organization, the formal consulting mechanism was shunted, and its load was reduced to a level it could reasonably handle. ([Weinberg], pp. 49-50)

Dee Hock describes how the first VISA credit card clearing system was developed by a group of people who did not seem to have the qualifications to do the job and used a spectacularly messy process:

We decided to become our own prime contractor, farming out selected tasks to a variety of software developers and then coordinating and implementing results. Conventional wisdom held it to be one of the worst possible ways to build computerized communications systems.

We rented cheap space in a suburban building and dispensed with leasehold improvements in favor of medical curtains on rolling frames for the limited spatial separation required. ...

Swiftly, self-organization emerged. An entire wall became a pinboard with every remaining day calendared across the top. Someone grabbed an unwashed coffee cup and suspended it on a long piece of string pinned to the current date. Every element of work to be done was listed on a scrap of paper with the required completion date and name of the person who had accepted the work. Anyone could revise the elements, adding tasks or revising dates, provided that they coordinated with others affected. Everyone, at any time, could see the picture emerge and evolve. They could see how the whole depended on their work and how their work was connected to every other part of the effort. Groups constantly assembled in front of the board as need and inclination arose, discussing and deciding in continuous flow and then dissolving as needs were met. As each task was completed, its scrap of paper would be removed. Each day, the cup and string moved inexorably ahead.

Every day, every scrap of paper that fell behind the grimy string would find an eager group of volunteers to undertake the work required to remove it. To be able to get one’s own work done and help another became a sought-after privilege. Nor did anyone feel beggared by accepting help. Such Herculean effort meant that at any time, anyone’s task could fall behind and emerge on the wrong side of the string.

Leaders spontaneously emerged and reemerged, none in control, but all in order. Ingenuity exploded. Individuality and diversity flourished. People astonished themselves at what they could accomplish and were amazed at the suppressed talents that emerged in others.

Position became meaningless. Power over others became meaningless. Time became meaningless. Excitement about doing the impossible increased, and a community based on purpose, principle, and people arose. Individuality, self-worth, ingenuity, and creativity flourished; and as they did, so did the sense of belonging to something larger than self, something beyond immediate gain and monetary gratification.

No one ever forgot the joy of bringing to work the wholeness of mind, body, and spirit; discovering in the process that such wholeness is impossible without inseparable connection with the others in the larger purpose of community effort. Money was a small part of what happened. The effort was fueled by a spontaneous expansion of the nonmonetary exchange of value. ...

No one ever replaced the dirty string and no one washed the cup. ... The BASE-1 system came up on time, under budget, and exceeded all operating objectives.” ([Hock], p. 205-207)

The standard software engineering lexicon would predict that this project should have been a disaster. In the cooperative game lexicon, however, it is clear that these people capitalized on the key factors of rapid communication, cooperation, trust, community, and pride-in-work.

The 1968 NATO conference itself is so rich with anomalies that question the engineering lexicon and support the cooperative game lexicon that I cannot include them all. Here are a representative set:

Fraser: “Design and implementation proceeded in a number of stages. . . . Each stage produced a useable product and the period between the end of one stage and the start of the next provided the operational experience upon which the next design was based. . . . The first stage did not terminate with a useable object program but the process of implementation yielded the information that a major design change would result in a superior and less expensive final product. During the second stage the entire system was reconstructed; an act that was fully justified by subsequent experience.. . . The final major design change arose out of observing the slow but steady escalation of complexity in one area of the system.” (pp. 11-12)

Smith: I’m still bemused by the way they attempt to build software. . . . All documents associated with software are classified as engineering drawings. They begin with planning specification, go through functional specifications, implementation specifications, etc., etc. This activity is represented by a PERT chart with many nodes. If you look down the PERT chart you discover that all the nodes on it up until the last one produce nothing but paper. It is unfortunately true that in my organisation people confuse the menu with the meal. (p. 52)

Kinslow: The design process is an iterative one. I will tell you one thing which can go wrong with it if you are not in the laboratory. In my terms design consists of:

:: 1. Flowchart until you think you understand the problem.
:: 2. Write code until you realize that you do not.
:: 3. Go back and re-do the flowchart.
:: 4. Write some more code and iterate to what you feel is the correct solution.__(p. 21)

Ross: The most deadly thing in software is the concept, which almost universally seems to be followed, that you are going to specify what you are going to do, and then do it. And that is where most of our troubles come from. (p .21)

Perlis: A man can communicate with about five colleagues on a software project without too much difficulty. Likewise he can supervise about five people and know pretty well what they are doing. One would structure 120 people in three levels, in which no man is talking to more than about eight people, both across his level and up and down . . . (p. 51)

Opler: I think I know how to organise reasonably successful communication for projects of between 10 and 50 people. . . . every member of the staff receives a three-ring binder and perhaps half-a-dozen pages stating the very first decisions and ground rules for the project, including an index. As the project proceeds everybody contributes sheets, which must be countersigned by their management. . . . This had interesting side-effects. I noticed that one part of the book was not filling in very fast — this led to early discovery of a worker who was lagging behind, and who eventually had to be dismissed. (p. 55)

Fraser: The question of what methods should be used for organising information flow between members of a production team depends largely on the size of the team.
I was associated with a 30-man project . . . We had three, or rather four, forms of information flow. The first was based on the fact that the compiler was written in a high-level language and hence provided, in part, its own documentation. The second form of information flow was based on documentation kept in a random access device which was regularly accessed by every member of the team. This was a steel filing cabinet kept in my office. . . . This was probably the most important form of communication we had. Its merits were that there was only one set of authoritative information, and that the indexing scheme, albeit crude, was sufficient to allow one to find, in most cases, the relevant information when you needed to make a decision. . . .
There was a fourth communications mechanism which every project has, and which perhaps does not get encouraged as much as it should be_._There are certain people in any organization who are remarkably effective at passing gossip. Many of the potential troubles in a system can be brought into the open, or even solved, by encouraging a bit of gossip. (p. 55)

Even in 1999 we find the same issues in play. Here is an excerpt from a team working at the top level of the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model. Note the importance given to issues of trust, communication, pride-in-work and personal, individual interactions:

. . . To be most effective, engineers must be motivated and energetic; they need to be creative and concerned about the quality of their products, and they should enjoy their work and be personally committed to its success. This can only be achieved if management trusts the engineers to work effectively and the engineers trust their management to guide and support them. . . . Management also needs to ensure that the engineers consistently follow disciplined methods and that the teams do not develop interpersonal problems. [Webb]

IV. Engineering in Action

The previous section raised the question of what professionals do while they are doing engineering and why people do not automatically think of craft and cooperation issues with respect to the term. In this section we look at the degradation of the term “engineering” in the last half century, and consider its more appropriate constituent parts.

Historical Origins of the “Engineering” Myth

Engineering once incorporated craft as an aspect, but lost it following WWII, as discipline envy flowed from applied physics to engineering and thence to software development. Schön recounts:

After World War II, in the glow of engineering triumphs which would have been impossible without the contributions of physics, and later on under the shadow of Sputnik, the advocates of engineering science had succeeded in transforming the engineering curriculum into an education in applied physics. By the late 1960s, however, leading practitioners and educators were beginning to have second thoughts. Harvey Brooks, the dean of the Harvard engineering program was among the first to point out the weakness of an image of engineering based exclusively on engineering science. In his 1967 article, “Dilemmas of Engineering Education,” he described the predicament of the practicing engineer who is expected to bridge the gap between a rapidly changing body of knowledge and the rapidly changing expectations of society. The resulting demand for adaptability, Brooks thought, required an art of engineering. The scientizing of the engineering schools had been intended to move engineering from art to science.
Aided by the enormous public support for science in the period 1953-1967, the engineering schools had placed their bets on an engineering science oriented to “the possibility of the new” rather than to the “design capability” of making something useful . . . Practicing engineers are no longer powerful role models when the professors of highest status are engineering scientists. . . . by 1967 engineering design had virtually disappeared from the curriculum, and the question of the relationship between science and art was no longer alive. . . . (pp. 171-172)

The result of this inflation of the infallibility of mathematical prediction was that people started expecting things made of “engineering” – and by implication, software development – to be predictable in cost, time and quality. However, even practitioners of the oldest field of engineering, civil engineering, fail in the same way as the average software developer when put in a similar situation. The project to build a highway under the city of Boston, to take one example, was estimated in 1983 as costing $2.2 Billion and being completed in 1995. At the time of this writing in 2003, it is scheduled for completion in 2005 at an approximate cost of $14.6 Billion [Cerasoli] [Chase]. The cost overrun is ascribed to the fact that it is larger than previous projects of this sort, and employs new and untried technologies. Martin Fowler quips [public talk], “Compared to civil engineers, software developers are rank amateurs at cost overruns”.

Popular expectations for engineering are faulty because the popular understanding of engineering-as-an-activity is itself faulty. If we reframe engineering as another entry in the economic-cooperative game category, along with framing laws and constitutions, the difficulty in accurately predicting the trajectories of engineering projects becomes more understandable. Predicting those is in the same category as predicting the time and cost for lawmakers to frame a new law or constitution (or any other activity in the economic-cooperative game category).

Doing Engineering

“Doing engineering” involves doing direct work in a situation, reflecting on the lessons learned in doing that work, and generating theories local to the problem at hand.

In The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön (1983) considers a key aspect of professional practice to be the engagement in a “reflective conversation with the situation.” Schön gives examples of both novice and experienced engineers gaining intimate knowledge of materials, actions and consequences, setting those next to their personal theories about the problems and solutions encountered to construct their next actions. Schön’s observations are incorporated in Pelle Ehn’s description of the language-game of development: “In the conversation with the materials of the situation, the designer can never make a move that has only intended implications. The design material is continually talking back to him. This causes him to apprehend unanticipated problems and potentials, which become the basis for further moves.” [Ehn, p. 230]

The leader of Lockheed’s famed “Skunk Works” facility harnessed rather than fought the need for guessing, experimentation, feedback and communication that are crucial to effective engineering. Kelly insisted on people sitting close together and taking accountability for decisions all the way from design to testing [Rich]. This can be seen both as effective “reflective conversation with the situation” and as effective play in a resource-limited cooperative game of invention and communication:

Kelly kept those of us working on his airplane jammed together in one corner of our [building]... My three-man thermodynamics and propulsion group now shared space with the performance and stability-control people. Through a connecting door was the eight-man structures group. ... Henry and I could have reached through the doorway and shaken hands. . . .

I was separated by a connecting doorway from the office of four structures guys, who configured the strength, loads, and weight of the airplane from preliminary design sketches. ... The aerodynamics group in my office began talking through the open door to the structures bunch about calculations on the center of pressures on the fuselage, when suddenly I got the idea of unhinging the door between us, laying the door between a couple of desks, tacking onto it a long sheet of paper, and having all of us join in designing the optimum final design. ... It took us a day and a half. ...”

All that mattered to him was our proximity to the production floor: A stone’s throw was too far away; he wanted us only steps away from the shop workers, to make quick structural or parts changes or answer any of their questions.

The similarities in team set up between Kelley’s expert group and Dee Hock’s _ad hoc_group are not accidental, but essential to accomplishing the group assignment [Allen]. Contrast Kelley’s and Schön’s understanding of engineering with that proposed by the 1968 NATO conference attendees:

Today we tend to go on for years, with tremendous investments to find that the system, which was not well understood to start with, does not work as anticipated. We build systems like the Wright brothers built airplanes — build the whole thing, push it off the cliff, let it crash, and start over again. (Graham, p. 12)

If we investigate the Wrights’ methods, we find, quite to the contrary, that they practiced engineering in the best sense, namely, reflective conversation with the situation, using guesses, experiment, theory, and, of course, feedback. Their own account reads as follows [Wright]:

In order to satisfy our minds as to whether the failure of the 1900 machine to lift according to our calculations was due to the shape of the wings or to an error in the Lilienthal tables, we undertook a number of experiments to determine the comparative lifting qualities of planes as compared with curved surfaces and the relative value of curved surfaces having different depths of curvature. . . . In September we set up a small wind tunnel in which we made a number of measurements. . . but still they were not entirely satisfactory. We immediately set about designing and constructing another apparatus from which we hope to secure much more accurate measurements. . . . we made thousands of measurements of the lift, and the ratio of the lift to the drift with these two instruments. (pp.15-18)

Engineering as a Cooperative Game

Much of “doing engineering,” along with doing research, and developing software, is playing a goal-directed and resource-limited cooperative game of invention and communication. Thomas J. Allen of MIT researched and documented the essential role of proximity and communication in research and development organizations in the 1970s [Allen]. He found, as Kelly’s Skunk Works team and other researchers, engineers and software developers find, that the energy and time expended in detecting and transferring ideas between minds is a key factor in the team’s progress. Proximity, accountability, morale, community and trust are aspects of reducing delay in detecting and transferring ideas. Rapid feedback across the total process is part of Schön’s “reflective conversation with the situation.”

We could attempt to bring the world back to a pre-WWII appreciation of the craft elements of engineering.

! See, for example,
:: Foundations for software engineering (discussion: Re: Foundations for Software Engineering),
:: Designing an incremental-iterative one-semester, undergraduate course in software engineering, and
:: the book/course series Software engineering in the 21st century.
(There’s also a talk on these topics that I haven’t yet uploaded.)

Even if we managed that, though, we would still not address a primary desiderata for an underlying model for our field: to evoke a reaction in busy practitioners to attend to community, cooperation, amicability, trust and sufficiency-in-communication. The cooperative game vocabulary does that.

V. Future research

The cooperative game model indicates several areas of research. The first centers around people’s abilities to create software:

  • the mechanics and economics of inventing,
  • the mechanics and economics of communicating over various media for various purposes, including optimal occasions to avoid using face-to-face communication,
  • how and why people cooperate,
  • what affects trust and pride,
  • what affects morale.

A second area of research centers around theories of decision making with bounded rationality and imperfect communication. A third area centers around project funding, perhaps borrowing from venture capital financing and strategies for options trading.

One caution is called for here. There is an old story about a man looking for his wallet at night under a lamp post. When a passer-by stops to help and asks him where he lost it, he points into the darkness and replies, “Over there somewhere.” The passer-by asks, “But then why are you looking for it over here?” The man replies, “Because the light is better here.” When suggesting research for our field, I often hear the response. “We do not research people issues because we are computer scientists. It is not that these topics are irrelevant, but they aren’t for us.” These speakers are comfortable under their lampposts and do not wish to venture into the darkness.

However, we work in the arena of software development, and so it is incumbent on us to learn how to do a better job at creating software. If we must learn something about people to accomplish that, then indeed, we must learn something about people. We needn’t learn everything about people, only those things surrounding invention and communication on cooperative games. That will, of course, include motivation, reward, fear, trust, amicability, pride, ego, community, modalities in communication, and solo and group idea creation.

It may well be that we will do as we have done in the past with other areas of enquiry, and learn things that other specialists do not know. It may be that we will incorporate into our field knowledge from other fields, as we have done in the past with fair success. Whichever way it goes, it is thoroughly part of our job to learn more about the active component in our arena: people.

VI. Summary

When “software engineering” was introduced in 1968 as a model for the field of software development, it was introduced as a provocation rather than as a model deduced from experience [Naur-Randell]. This paper reconsidered the model in the light of four decades of experience, and found the model lacking in four respects:

  • The model does not intrinsically generate topics known to be important to project success, topics such as talent and skill, team cohesion and interpersonal communication [Boehm].
  • The model fails to explain the historical record of successful and failing projects [Cockburn 2003a]. In particular, it fails to explain the success of so many low-ceremony, even sloppy-looking projects, and the declared preference of experienced, successful developers with those processes.
  • After 35 years of use, different people still interpret the term in very different ways, leading to conflicting recommendations for behavior on projects.
  • The term, and the model, do not lead practitioners on live projects to derive effective advice as to how to proceed.

This paper introduced a new model:

Software development is a series of resource-limited, goal-directed, cooperative games of invention and communication. The primary goal of each game is the production and deployment of a software system. The residue of the game is a set of markers to assist the players of the next game. People use markers and props to remind, inspire and inform each other in getting to the next move in the game. The successor game is an alteration of the system or the creation of a neighboring system, and so each game has as a secondary goal to create an advantageous position for the next game. The primary and secondary goals compete for resources in a resource-limited situation.

This model intrinsically names issues known to be important to project success: cooperation, communication, cost-of-, rate-of-, and sufficiency-in-communication. It quickly hints at other relevant issues: individual talent and skill, relations between people-as-individuals in pairs and in groups, the value of retaining jelled teams, the diminishing returns with extended modeling and documentation, and the importance of learning and applying different strategies for different circumstances.

With those topics brought to the fore, the new model was shown to fit project experience reports from untrained groups in the 1960s and 1970s up through a CMM Level-5 organization in 1999. Practitioners on live projects find the model useful because it illuminates the key issues and the trade-offs they have to deal with in their overconstrained situations.

The model introduces the possibility of usefully borrowing results from other fields to help in creating project management strategies. Economic theory, theories of decision-making with bounded information, and options trading seem particularly relevant.

A brief retrospective of engineering in the general sense indicated that much of engineering also belongs to the category of resource-limited, goal-directed, cooperative games of invention and communication.

The economic-cooperative game model serves primarily in building project strategies. It model does not capture the thought processes of the designer-programmer while creating and manipulating the design and expression of the program. An adjunct model, picking up aspects of a mental craft, needs to be added. This adjunct model will want to incorporate Peter Naur’s consideration of programming as “theory building,” Donald Schön’s idea of “reflective conversation with a situation,” and the issues of efficiency, manipulability and aesthetics of the program [Coplien]. The adjunct model will be subject to and have a natural fit with the economic-cooperative game model.

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  3. Beck, K., Cunningham, W., “A laboratory for teaching object-oriented thinking,” _ACM SIGLPLAN_24(10):1-7, 1989.
  4. Bordia, P., Prashant, K., “Face-to-face versus computer-mediated communications: A synthesis of the literature”, The Journal of Business Communication 34(1),U of Illinois, Champaign, IL, Jan 1997, pp. 99-120.
  5. Boehm, B., Software Cost Estimation with COCOMO II, Prentice Hall PTR, 2000.
  6. Brown, K., Klastorin, T. & Valluzzi J., “Project Performance and the Liability of Group Harmony,” IEEE Transactions On Engineering Management, 37(2), May 1990, pp. 117-125.
  7. Carse, J., Finite and Infinite Games, Ballantine Books, 1987.
  8. Cerasoli, R., Office of the Inspector General, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “A History of Central Artery/Tunnel Project Finances 1994 – 2001: Report to the Treasurer of the Commonwealth”, available online at
  9. Chase, T., “Revelation 13: The Big Dig”
  10. Cockburn, A. [1998], Surviving Object-Oriented Projects, Addison-Wesley, 1998.
  11. Cockburn, A. [2000a], “Characterizing People as Non-Linear, First-Order Components in Software Development”, 4th International Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics, Orlando, FL, July, 2000. Online as Humans and Technology Technical Report, TR 99.05, at <a href="" target="_blank"></a> crystal/articles/cpanfocisd/characterizingpeopleasnonlinear.html.
  12. Cockburn, A. [2000b] “Selecting a Project’s Methodology”, IEEE Software, 17(4), July/Aug 2000, pp.64-71.
  13. Cockburn, A. [2001], “The Expert-in-Earshot Project Management Pattern”, in Succi, G., Marchesi, M., Extreme Programming Examined, Addison-Wesley, Boston, MA, 2001, pp. 245-247.
  14. Cockburn, A. [2002a], Agile Software Development, Addison-Wesley, 2002.
  15. Cockburn, A. [2002b], “Learning from Agile Development, Part 1,” in _CrossTalk: The Journal of Defense Software Engineering,_October, 2002, pp. 10-14
  16. Cockburn, A. [2003a], People and Methodologies in Software Development, Dr. Philos. dissertation, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences dissertation no. 264, University of Oslo, 2003, online at <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
  17. Cockburn, A. [2003b], “The ‘Cone of Silence’ and Related Project Management Strategies,” Humans and Technology Technical Report 2003.01, online at http://alistair.cockburn/crystal/articles/cos/coneofsilence.htm.
  18. Coplien, J., “Software Development as Science, Art and Engineering.” In Rising, L, ed., The Patterns Handbook: Techniques, Strategies, and Applications, pp. 321-332. Cambridge University Press, New York, January 1998.
  19. DeMarco, T., Lister, T., Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd Ed., Dorset House, 1999.
  20. Denne, M., Cleland-Huang, J., _Software blank">by Numbers: Low-Risk, High-Return Development Prentice Hall PTR, 2003.
  21. Ehn, P., Work-Oriented Development of Software Artifacts, Arbetslivscentrum, Stockholm, 1988.
  22. Herring, R., Rees, M., “Internet-Based Collaborative Software Development Using Microsoft Tools”, in _Proceedings of the 5th World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics_SCI’2001). 22-25 July, 2001. Orlando, Florida., online at
  23. Highsmith, J., Agile Software Development Ecosystems, Addison-Wesley, 2003.
  24. Hock, D., Birth of the Chaordic Age, Berret-Koehler, 1999.
  25. Jacobson, I., Christerson, M., Jonsson, P., Overgaard, G., Object-Oriented Software Engineering: A Use Case Driven Approach, Addison-Wesley, 1992.
  26. Markus, M., “Asynchronous technologies in small face to face groups,” Information Technology & People, Apr 92, 6(1), p.29.
  27. Maturana, H., Varela, F., The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala Publications, 1988.
  28. McBreen, P., Software Craftsmanship, Addison-Wesley, 2001.
  29. McCarthy, J., Monk, A., “Channels, conversation, cooperation and relevance: all you wanted to know about communication but were afraid to ask,” in Collaborative Computing, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1994, pp. 35-61.
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  33. Reinertsen, D., Managing the Design Factory, Free Press, 1997.
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  36. SEED, “Object-Oriented Software Engineering”, The SEED Project, online
  37. Snyder, C., Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces, Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.
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  39. Sullivan, K, Chalasani, P., Jha, S., Sazawal, V., “Software Design as an Investment Activity: A Real Options Perspective,” in Real Options and Business Srategy: Applications to Decision Making, L. Trigeorgis, ed., Risk Books, December 1999.
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  47. Wright, O., How We Invented the Airplane: An Illustrated History, edited by F.C. Kelly, Dover, 1953.

Chesterton quote

Just read this today, a quote from Borges quoting Chesterton. I found it on, the 2nd-last paragraph. It gripped me, in whatever mood I am in today, and I can’t let it pass:

“He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire”


“AdvancedAgile with @TotherAlistair is like walking in as an agile Jedi then some dude with pointy horns pulls a double ended light sabre.” – Todd.

Welcome to the garden of memes. With over 3,000 pages: articles, blog posts, poems, videos, lectures, discussions, discussions: a labyrinth of criss-crossing paths for your enjoyment. Some random, some fun, some serious; some photos, some videos, some poems, some article, some notes to myself. “Get Lost!” as they say. (Oh, p.s., just found for origin of the surname Cockburn)

See also How to use this site (discussion: Re: How to use this site) and Interesting tricks for this site.
on Twitter & Facebook: @TotherAlistair

Dr. Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn, the Scottish way) is an internationally renowned project witchdoctor and IT strategist, best known for

“Alistair Cockburn is not just a methodologist, he is the only methodologist with the clarity of mind to set the standards for the rest of us.” – J. D. Krise (CSM, CSPO, PMP)

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” (Katharine Hepburn)

“When I build a fire under a person, I do not do it merely because of the enjoyment I get out of seeing him fry, but because he is worth the trouble. It is then a compliment, a distinction; let him give thanks and keep quiet. I do not fry the small, the commonplace, the unworthy.” (Mark Twain, 2011 centennial autobiography edition, p221)

Recent interests:

Deception is a word (discussion: Re: Deception is a word) (poem) My recent (only) Ri (discussion: Re: Shu Ha Ri) tattoo Disciplined Learning (discussion: Re: Disciplined Learning) Hexagonal architecture (discussion: Re: Hexagonal architecture) being read and referenced (eg here, here, and here). Me The magic of pi for project managers (discussion: Re: The magic of pi for project managers)

The poem “Only e.e.cummings is

TitleCategoryDateModByAction  Re: Level 2 thinking03/21/1503/24/15 13:19Mary PrattChangededit Re: Oath of Non-Allegiance05/20/1003/27/15 02:11Kennedy MothibiChangededit Re: Agile contracts04/29/1003/30/15 09:51Gert CantChangededit Heart after RiBlog (discussion: Re: Blog)03/31/1503/31/15 02:28AlistairCreatededit Heart of RiBlog (discussion: Re: Blog)03/31/1503/31/15 15:12AlistairTidiededit Re: Oath of Non-Allegiance05/20/1003/31/15 15:16AlistairChangededit Oath of Non-Allegiance (discussion: Re: Oath of Non-Allegiance)Blog (discussion: Re: Blog)05/20/1003/31/15 15:21AlistairTidiededit Re: Agile contracts04/29/1003/31/15 15:33AlistairTidiededit Heart after RiBlog (discussion: Re: Blog)03/31/1504/03/15 15:30AlistairPromotededit Shu Ha Ri (discussion: Re: Shu Ha Ri)Blog (discussion: Re: Blog)11/14/0804/03/15 15:31AlistairTidiededit Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini (discussion: Re: Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini)Blog (discussion: Re: Blog)04/03/1504/03/15 15:52AlistairCreatededit Re: Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini04/03/1504/03/15 22:49edsterCreatededit Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini (discussion: Re: Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini)Blog (discussion: Re: Blog)04/03/1504/06/15 12:59AlistairTidiededit Re: Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini04/03/1504/06/15 13:23AlistairChangededit Re: Oath of Non-Allegiance05/20/1004/06/15 16:34Milan JuzaChangededit ` (discussion: Re: Alistair Cockburn)Me06/19/0804/06/15 19:15AlistairTidiededit Oath of Non-Allegiance (discussion: Re: Oath of Non-Allegiance)Blog (discussion: Re: Blog)05/20/1004/06/15 19:20AlistairTidiededit Re: A history of agile software development Starter Kit04/07/1504/07/15 08:38Lee RiemenschneiderCreatededit

An alternate photo of me:

The poem A Goal (1) (discussion: Re: A Goal (1)) in pictorial format.

“Computers must support the way in which people naturally and comfortably work. This is needed both for personal job satisfaction and for corporate survival. I care about whether the team is thriving, and whether the software is being delivered. Keeping the people trained and the process light are key to both.” (written in 1991, still applicable)

Other videos:

Hire Alistair Please Do Understand Alistair You up for it?

Interview with Alistair 2015 for IT Martini

Interview w IT Martini, questions from Terreece Clarke.
April 3, 2015

  • 1/ You have a great quote right at the top of your website: “AdvancedAgile with @TotherAlistair is like walking in as an agile Jedi then some dude with pointy horns pulls a double ended light saber.” The person being quoted make it seem like it’s a good thing to be the Sith apprentice in Agile. Why is that a good thing?

Haha! :). That was his experience and his words, not mine. It means he came in with too much ego.

The Advanced Agile masterclass is not like any IT or agile class you’ve been to. It is not just another bunch of techniques to learn. It is about inquiring into why things work and what is connected to what. It requires thinking, feeling and introspecting deeply. You have to go through the class a minimum of three times to graduate. So far I have two graduates. In this sense it’s more like a black-belt studio than a course.

The first thing I have to do is to free up some neurons in an “expert” person’s head so that they can shove new ideas in. If they have too much ego, they think they know it all, they can’t learn, they just want to show off their extensive knowledge. That’s when the Sith thing happens.

I start each class with “Why is agile less efficient than waterfall?” That rocks people back on their heels, and they squirm or suffer. Or not, depending on their mental state when they enter. In all cases, that’s when inquiry begins.

The most experienced people get the most from the class. One of those people wrote: “Can I say on a personal note , since I came back it has relit the fire in me.” I recall this guy just smiling all the way through the class, as the others around him suffered. That’s the difference in what people bring into the class with them.

Great question.

  • 2/ What has changed since the Agile Manifesto? Give me a couple of good things and a couple bad things. Is the ‘State of Agile’ good?

Yes, the state of agile is good. In fact, I talk about being in a “post-agile” world. “Post-agile” means that we’re in transition, we don’t yet know what is coming. But agile development is now used inside and outside of IT, in everything from teaching to construction to business to publishing to you-name-it. Younger people have no experience outside of it. So the conversation now is: given all that, what?

Given all that, what people talk about and now do is different from the simplistic sales rhetoric of the last 90s and early 2000s.

  • The one-dimensional Scrum product backlog is seen as suboptimal, maybe a good place for beginners to start, but not such a great way to run a business. Jeff Patton writes extensively about this.
  • The notion of “velocity” is being deprecated: The idea of velocity is that the more you ship, the better. Sharp business people now want more end effect from shipping less. So “velocity” is, for top practitioners, a negative not a positive attribute. Gabrielle Benefield and Jeff Patton make this clear for us.
  • “Pay-to-learn” was frowned upon in the early days of agile, in an effort to stop analysis paralysis, but has had a rebirth from people who apply it with the agile values in the blood. It is the successor and upgrade to classical risk-reduction programs. I wrote about this as “Disciplined Learning” in

Those are just three quick examples.

People point to the dilution of agile as a problem, but it’s not. The only alternative to being misunderstood and misappropriated is being ignored.

  • 3/ Failure is a great learning tool. What has been your ‘best’ failure to date?

People learn more from success than from failure. Failure means everything you knew, everything you tried didn’t work. How long will it be before you learn finally enough to work out why you failed – years? But the learning why you failed didn’t come from the failure, it came from something else, later on, where you see something new. So the learning doesn’t come from the failing.

The best learning comes from nearly failing but then succeeding. Then you get to see what change produced the magical effect.

The most significant learning moment for me was interviewing a development team in 1992 who describing their intense and complete “failure” (except it wasn’t) after their first four months on a project. After their first, totally minimal and horrible delivery (see, it wasn’t a “failure”, it just wasn’t good), they brainstormed and changed everything about their project, except it’s mission. They changed most of the staff, they changed their team structure, their management structure, their learning structure, and they moved on. Every four months, they did this retrospective and change, and by the end of a year had a screamingly successful project.

My jaw dropped as the manager described all the changes they made and the results. That was the single biggest learning moment that I can recall. I had almost the exact same experience a few years later on my first big project, and I applied much their same style of changing things, with similar successful results.

This interview and my successive experiences with it became the basis for the critical Reflection Workshop in Crystal and eventually in all of agile.

I hope you see that if you are alert, you neither have to fail to learn, nor does it even have to your own near-failure. You can actually learn from the pain of others ;)

  • 4/ When did you first fall in love with tech?

I never did, and I still don’t. I liked solving problems in high school, somewhat by chance ended up in a Software Engineering curriculum in university, and by the time I was a senior, wanted out.

However, those were the only jobs I could get, so I stayed in, until I could work my way out. It took me many years, going from hardware design, to software design, to development tools research, to methodology design, where I finally discovered that methodology intersects psychology, sociology and anthropology.

These days I’m lucky, I get to work in the psychology, sociology, and anthropology of designing in teams, of which software development is one. So I get to hang with the super-smart, problem-solving crowds, and do my humanistic research around them.

  • 5/ What have you been working on that you’re proud to share?

Hmmm, the last three years, I’ve been traveling around the world, spending a lot of time in France, Argentina and Australia. I’ve been impressed with the way people in France and Argentina, in particular, enjoy life more, with less stress and less money, than the people in the US and the rest of Europe.

The way they spend their attention on life, love, food, and companionship has impressed itself on me in major ways. In Argentina, they relax about time and they celebrate all small successes. Non-combative, non-transactional ways of interacting are difficult to learn, given a US upbringing, but bring a welcome peace of mind, and have been opening my eyes to see all sorts of interesting positive contributions in these other cultures.

That’s been occupying me much these last years. I don’t yet know how (or whether) to try to pass these along to anyone else.

  • 6/ What’s next for you? What project/event/idea is coming in the near future that you’re excited about?

I’ve concluded that there is a stage of proficiency beyond Ri (see the Shu – Ha – Ri progression: ). Normally, Ri (離) is considered the top level of skill acquisition, because it means being able to perform optimally in wildly varying situations. We see this in experts in every field.

However, as I progress, and watch other top professionals and teachers, I see that they pass from being more complex in their performances to more simple. What’s that about?

And this is my study.

These people learn how to derive their complex performances from the very simple basics of their field. That is why these super-accomplished practitioners annoy their students by saying “Study the basics, practice the basics” all the time. The students are still climbing the ladder of complexity. The master is climbing back down again.

Happily, the Japanese already have a word handy for this: 心, which means “heart” or “spirit”, as in “the heart or spirit of agile” (Agile の心, pronounced “agile no kokoro”).

My practice now, as started with the Advanced Agile masterclass and continuing with my new and future work, is uncovering and teaching the Heart of Agile, and studying other experts in various field to see how they climb down the ladder of complexity in their arts.

This may show up in works like Simplifying Agile Development, Simplifying Project Management, Simplifying Object-Oriented Design, and so on.

Stay tuned, I guess …

(postscript: the Kanji characters for shu – ha – ri – heart are 守 – 破 – 離 – 心 ).

  • 7/ How do you stay excited about tech & Agile?

I don’t. I stay excited about people.

I love their complexity, it is constantly surprising, good and bad, neverending.

Even teaching basic techniques to newcomers, I have to stay attuned to their previous experiences and their contributions to the conversations. It keeps me alive and motivated in all my classes and discussions.

My emotional paycheck for the work I do is increasing trust, reducing fear in whatever organization I visit.

Traveling the world feeds this passion.

  • 8/ What great tech or business problem has made an impact on/influenced your career?

My boss in IBM, Kathy Ulisse, was the one who said to me, “Why don’t you go and debrief some teams, and find out what actually works?” And then gave me unlimited airplane tickets to do just that.

The project I interviewed in 1992, described above, was a major turning point in my interviews.

Elihu Goldratt’s “The Goal”, and Lave and Wenger’s “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participaction” opened my eyes to new perspectives around me.

And all the people on the projects I have visited, and even in the bar conversations :) have fed me information and ideas non-stop.

But certainly, getting that assignment from Kathy: “Please give the IBM Consulting Group an effective methodology for object-technology projects; we have no prior, competing methodology to carry as baggage”, was the turning point in my career.

  • 9/ What will be your focus on at the conference? What’s the ‘great takeaway?’ (sorry to ask such a stale question ;0)

Living in Post-Agile World

read the answers above :).

Heart of Ri

守 – 破 – 離 – 心

shu – ha – ri – kokoro




守 – 破 – 離 – 離の心

shu – ha – ri – ri no kokoro


Agile の心

agile no kokoro

Re: Level 2 thinking

Recent Change Note: grammar fix

The real numbers are not integers.

-by Kevin Steffenson on 3/21/2015 at 12:53 AM

Would you feel differently about these kinds of thinking if instead of naming them as levels 0 to 2, you named them for something un-sequenced; as operating in the orange green and purple zones?

-by Chris F Carroll on 3/21/2015 at 8:19 AM