It’s… thinking thursday

The Challenge

A couple of minutes ago, Michael Bolton tweeted

Thinking Thursday. Test this sentence: “In successful agile development teams, every team member takes responsibility for quality.”

My initial reaction was: “A Michael Bolton challenge – where’s the catch?” This is actually a sentence that shows up regularly in agile literature. Heck, I even said it myself a couple of times. What I really wanted to say at the time, was probably something along the lines of “In agile development, producing quality software should be a team effort – lots of collaboration and communication. No blaming or finger-pointing individuals.”

I tweeted some replies, but soon realised that I would hit the 140 character limit head on.

The Test

But then I thought – why not give these kinds of agile creeds Weinberg’s “Mary had a little lamb”-workout, usually reserved for demistifying ambiguous requirements. I used it earlier: stress every word in turn and see where the ambiguities are.

  • In?
    Does this mean that outside agile development teams, no team members take responsibility?
  • Successful?
    Does this imply that in unsuccessful agile development teams, no one takes responsibility for quality, or that some individuals take the blame? Successful to whom, and compared to what? What is meant with “success”, really? On time, within budget? Satisfied customers? All of these combined?
  • Agile?
    What “Agile” definition are we talking about? Capital A, small a? A mindset, a methodology?And what about successful waterfall teams? Do some individuals take responsibility there? I would like to think that in successful teams, all team members would like a part of the praise. What about those other kinds of development teams out there?
  • Development teams?
    Are we talking about developers only here? What about the tester and product owner role? Or all the other roles that played an important part in developing the product? “In agile teams, testers *are* part of the development team”, you say? I agree, as are the product owners. But in that case, we should think about another label for the team.
  • Every?
    Really? *Every* team member? Can all team members be equally responsible for quality? As Michael Bolton contends, testers do not assure quality. Do testers hire the programmers? Fix problems in the code? Design the product? Set the schedule? Set the product scope? Decide which bugs to fix, write code?
  • Team member?
    What about people that played a part in successfully delivering the product, but that are not considered as core team members? Who are the people that make up the team? Is that defined up front? Aren’t those team boundaries pretty dynamic?
  • Takes Responsibility?
    Doesn’t *taking* responsibility sound a bit too negative? Isn’t “responsibility a two-sided sword? Receiving praise when the quality is applauded, taking the blame when quality turns out to be sub par?
  • Quality?
    Quality, to whom? Qualitative, compared to what? What is quality, anyway?

Is there a problem here?

Well… The sentence under scrutiny sounds comfortably familiar, and in that sense it was a good thing to think it through in a little more detail. It sure leaves a lot to interpretation. Some of the terms used in it are highly subjective or their definitions simply not generally agreed upon.

Back to twitter

Later on, in a response to a tweet from Shrini Kulkarni, Michael said that his purpose was “exploring what bugs me (and others) about it”.

Actually, nothing bugged me about it *before* the exercise, but now it dawned upon me that the wording of that good agile practice does not do the practice justice. It is too vague; it does need rephrasing.

How about a Frustrating Friday challenge: make this sentence fresh and ambiguity-free.

You could postpone it to Semantic Saturday, if you wish. Your call.


10 thoughts on “It’s… thinking thursday”

  1. Your test is not quite a full Jerry “mary had a little lamb” test … slightly less powerful. you did not look up in dictionary and list at least 5 meanings or synonyms for each words and then make up as many as sentences as possible by using the synonyms…

    good post and one that is on the spot so quickly…

    way to go


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Shrini.

      You are absolutely right, I didn’t give it the full GMW-treatment, implying that I had to look up dictionary definitions. I wanted to give my response as quickly as possible.

      I have found out in the past that just stressing different words in turn already yields enough questions, so I more or less made my own lightweight version of the technique.


  2. I missed the tweet from Michael B and only saw this response. Great post! I bet there was no catch other that to make people think and form an opinion 😉

    This is one of those sentences which can provide a perspective, but when used alone is nonsense. It fails the nonsense test, including a negation making it meaningless: “In successful agile development teams, every team member acts irresponsibly for quality.

    But this does not mean that the sentence cannot be used in a meaningless way! It can provide a perspective. By saying these words instead of something else, you say something about your values. There is no single such thing as “agile development”, but there are development projects where these words are used. Likewise there are no “successful agile teams”, because that implies a definition of success, agile and team which is also impossible, incomplete or completely wrong depending on how you see it.

    Words gain a meaning when they are used in a context. Books and articles can provide the context so they can have meaning by themselves. Some sentences provide facts, so they set a context, but no value.

    THE PROBLEM with this sentence is that it’s far too often used to punish people with. To make them feel stupid. Unsuccessful. Irresponsible. That would not have been a problem if it was only used to educate irresponsible, stupid team members who need to reflect on what can be expected from them, but most of the time it’s used out of context. As if the speaker of these words had found the holy grail and everyone else are zeroes.

    And that’s when the statement turns into nonsense.

    Thanks for blogging this!


    1. Hi Anders,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.
      I guess it’s my evil & distorted tester mind that makes me wary for catches and makes me think there are traps behind every corner of the twitterverse. Anyway, it was a quick and dirty thinking exercise that puts things in perspective.

      — Z

    1. Thanks Lynn! I think it was actually the first time that I wrote a blog post in one go.
      Could it be I just activated my inner Markus “speedblogging” Gärtner? Das wäre schön!

      — Z

  3. The first thing that comes to me when reading sentences like this is a feeling of uneasiness using the word “agile”. I get that same feeling when people e.g. automatically link agile with ET. I don’t see that link as being present or necessary. It just seems to draw the focus away from the people and towards the method.

    Great way of approaching the sentence however and I love the blog post.

    I may join you in a Frustrating Friday but unfortunately, I have to get ready for the Super-chocolate-mousse Saturday and I don’t think we can settle the discussion on an ambiguity-free sentence in one day.

    Enjoy the weekend.

    P.S. On my second attempt, I bypassed your blog security of spontaneously throwing a BSOD at me when clicking the “post comment” button.

  4. Nice post, Zeger.

    I missed the point of using Jerry’s heuristic on the sentence to analyze it and just commented on the quality similar to your question.

    Another thing is that Thinking Thursday is missing a hashtag. Since #thth is already in use, how about #thinkingth?


  5. I also missed the tweet, but have been thinking about this also alot.

    There is one thing that bugs me above all with the sentence in the challenge, and the way you approach it. You refer to the word in your thinking about the rephrasing of the sentence, but then you write the whole post without any reference to it. What bugs me even more, is that none of the comments bring it up either. Inattentional blindness from both you and the skillful commenters keeps you away from the word SOFTWARE!

    Find “software” gave me 6 matches for this page, where only one was in your post as a sidenote. Do we tend to forget about the most fundamental underlying context of them all?

    Thank you for a great post!

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