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Negotiations and Lovesongs: Introduction

April 16, 2008 1 Comment

[Copyright 2008 by Bruce F. Webster. All rights reserved. Adapted from Surviving Complexity (forthcoming).]

Two disappointed believers,
Two people playing the game.
Negotiations and love songs
Are often mistaken for one and the same.

— “Train in the Distance”, Paul Simon

I used to have arguments with Carol Teasley, one of my mentors, regarding software development methodologies. She contended that there were no really good or effective methodologies, because if there were, everyone would use them and they would work. I, in turn, contended that there were several effective methodologies, but that they were just badly applied for the most part.

Then while watching the movie “A Beautiful Mind” (about Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash, a brilliant mathematician who struggled with schizophrenia), I was struck by the sequence that represented (not entirely accurately) some of his insights about game theory and multi-player equilibrium points. It occurred to me that software development within a typical corporate/government organization is really an instance of multi-player game theory, with several general classes of players. The real issue in organizational software development is not the development methodology being used. That methodology, at best, is necessary but not sufficient for a successful project; it may actually be irrelevant, and at worst it may be a hindrance.

The real issue is the game that’s being played.

Organizational software development, I believe, can be thought of as an n-player game, where each set of players has voiced and unvoiced (and possibly even unconscious) goals, many of which are incompatible with those of one or more other players.

At the most abstract level, the fundamental division is among IT developers (Geeks), upper management (Suits), and end-users (Users). Put very roughly, the Geeks work as if they’re playing Halo, the Suits work as if they’re playing poker, and the Users are just trying to balance their checkbooks. The result is that the three groups mostly baffle and frustrate one another; they can’t even agree on what game they’re playing, much less what constitutes winning.

Adding to the problem is that each group has generally negative perceptions of the other two, which in turn shape the games. For example, Geeks tend see Suits as “marketing weasels” who make impossible promises (to Users) or demands (of the Geeks) that the Geeks can’t possibly meet. Geeks look upon Users with a mixture of condescension and dismissal, though that elevates to horror and dismay if the Geeks have to directly provide tech support to the Users.

Suits tend to see Geeks as overgrown, naive, but possibly bright children who never actually deliver anything. They tend to see Users as annoying sheep, except when the Users control the purse-strings, at which point the most far-fetched User demand is seen (and portrayed by the Suit) as eminently possible.

The Users tend to see Geeks as irascible wizards who may or may not deliver the magic necessary to make their own lives easier. They tend to see Suits as corrupt nobles who hold not just power but also the wizards’ collective leashes.

Now, these are of course blatant and gross oversimplifications, but ones with a foundation in reality; were it not so, the Dilbert comic strip would have died a quiet death long since.

At some future point I will look a bit closer at these abstract classes (Geek, Suit, User) and then will look at some of the real-world patterns (internal development, external development, and so on).

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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

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