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May 06

Framing the debate

From an article in the Wall Street Journal about evolution comes this quote from biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University:

The idea that females choose the genetically best males is wrong. Instead of choosing mates who will increase the genetic quality of their offspring, females make choices that will increase their number of offspring

This is an example of a framing problem endemic in debates about Waterfall and Agile development. People assume that the option they find most compelling is, by definition, the best one. But the best option is the one that delivers the goods, not the one that “should deliver the goods.”

Specifically referencing the quote above, notice the contradition – “genetically best” in her mind does not, apparently, mean the same thing as “increase their number of offspring. Huh? Consider the following:

The idea that project managers choose the theoretically best software development methodology X is wrong. Instead of choosing methodologies that increase the quality of the project, project managers make choices that will increase the number of projects delivered on time and on budget.

Isn’t “deliverying on time and on budget” a realistically meaningful definition of quality? Not the only one, to be sure, but certainly a compelling one, no? And in the case of the birds, isn’t one definition of genetic quality contributing to the number of offspring? There’s a cognitive bias here that says that “Attribute X” makes someone’s genes better, but that is simple human arrogance. God and Nature define what genetic success is for a bird, not Man (or in this case, Woman).
Now, the next time someone says that BDUF improves the “quality” of the project, make sure that you and they are on the same page about what “quality” means.

Note – in all fairness to Ms/Dr. Roughgarden, she may have been completely misquoted. The problem, unfortunately, remains.

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