Sunday, 27 July 2008

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

During any development project thousands of decisions will be made. Every individual in a team will make large numbers of decisions whether about details such as variable names or cross cutting concerns such as architecture. The success or failure of a project is the sum of all these decisions.

There are two key factors in making decisions: information and risk. The more information we have the better informed the decision is and every decision made - and not made - carries a risk. Empirical methodologies (such as Agile and Lean) have contrasting methods to decision making than up-front plan based methodologies such as waterfall. Fixed-plan methodologies attempt to manage these factors by collecting as much information as possible and then committing to decisions before implementation starts where as empirical methodologies promote delaying decisions until there is enough information available.

Both approaches recognize the importance of information and of managing risk yet they have contradictory views on the best way of dealing with them. Where fixed-plan methodologies believe that by committing heavily to the informed decision prior to execution you reduce risk empirical methodologies accept that, in reality, every decision that you make ahead of time carries the greatest risk of all: it could be wrong. The chances of wrong decisions are increased because the information that fixed-plan methods derive their decisions from is essentially highly detailed speculation which in turn is based on a limited amount of real information which carries the risk of being incorrect or out-of-date or even irrelevant. The strength of commitment increases the impact of a wrong decision even more. Agile and Lean acknowledge this fact and tackle it head on by managing risk with two techniques: they delay decisions as much as possible until the maximum amount of real information is available - what Lean calls the last responsible moment (as Lean acknowledges there is also risk in delaying a decision too much) - and they attempt to de-risk decisions by lowering commitment - essentially by allowing change.

Agile and Lean acknowledge that upfront decision making carries the need to cover a great number of hypothetical eventualities than may or may not actually occur. The crystal ball gazing of fixed-plan methods is an attempt to de-risk the unavoidable gaps in information by trying to account for any possible variation with more pre-made decisions. Essentially imagine trying to plan out an entire chess game before you play it: every possible move your opponent does or doesn't make would have to be accounted for in the plan. The end result? An over complex and convoluted plan (which translates to over engineered, complex software). Again because Agile doesn't rely on pre-packed decisions, instead acting on the real information, it removes the need to make the "what if" decisions - this is the foundation of the maxim "You Ain't Gonna Need It".

Another aspect that traditional methods fail to tackle is decision paralysis: having one decision to make is hard enough but having to make all decisions infallibly and at once requires omnipotence. Although some developers believe they are gods Agile recognizes their limitations by giving techniques to allow focus on as few decisions at a time: TDD is a great example of this and so is the maxim "The simplest thing that could possibly work".

Agile and Lean promote both the overall reduction in decisions and minimizing the number of decisions to be made at one time (essentially by spreading them out across the project). Pushed to an extreme, decision making can be reduced to being purely reactive. The purely impractical "URL Driven Development" demonstrates this by only making decisions when the event which creates the need for a decision occurs. Essentially when someone hits a URL you write just enough HTML to satisfy their request. Despite being impractical it demonstrates the principles of Just In Time decisions well and should not be used to negate their value within the development cycle where decisions can safely be reduced to being purely reactive. Test Driven Development uses JIT decisions extensively: you write a test, an event occurs (unsuccessfully) which forces a decision to write just enough code to satisfy that one event, rerunning the test recreates the event and validates your decision and then you move on to add another event forcing another decision.

Aggressively minimizing the number of decisions which need to be made by simply delaying them or eliminating them altogether has an overall positive effect on a project. Ensuring that there are few small decisions which require minimum commitment and have the maximum amount of information increases the chances of making good decisions and reduces risk of committing to bad ones. In short: prefer fewer good decisions than many potentially bad ones.

1 comment:

JoshG said...

Nice posting.

I'm quite biased to your argument ;-) but I would like to draw out the brief mention you made of the risks associated with not making a decision.

It would be good to compare and contrast plan-based methods with empirical ones and touch on how we address the need to make some decisions as a part of the rather vague "enough design up front" and agile architecture lines of thinking.

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West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.