PM Articles > Geof Lory > Tradeoff over Rules

Tradeoff over Rules

by Geof Lory

Growing up I was not very good at following the rules. As a second and middle child, I felt it was my duty to frustrate nuns, teachers, coaches, and my parents with my antiestablishment behavior. Through 12 years of Catholic schools, I spend more than my fair share of time in the principal's office. While most of my offenses were not crimes in a legal sense, they were still violations of the socially agreed upon rules of the time. And by the way, not much has changed.

So it should come as no surprise that when I look at the Agile Manifesto, what I like most is that it is not a set of rules to follow. The Agile Manifesto, at its foundation, is not prescriptive. It identifies opposing values and then states that Agile emphasizes one set of values over the other. This approach respects both ends of the value spectrum, and in doing so, reminds us that it is a continuum. That is why I prefer to think of Agile as a mindset or framework and not a methodology.

Whenever you choose a single point along any spectrum, you are making a tradeoff. But tradeoffs are uncomfortable. You have to use trial and error to discover the balance point. And once you do, it isn't always the same, nor does it stay constant. It is totally situational. Who really wants to stay in the discomfort of that uncertainty? For many people, life would be so much easier if we just had a rule for everything.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Rules are an attempt to ignore tradeoffs and make the world black and white. Unfortunately, life is anything but black and white. So, while rules can be valuable and important (e.g. stop at a red light, don't steal), no set of rules can cover every possible situation. Human interaction is just too dynamic for that. Getting comfortable with making tradeoffs helps us deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity of life.

When I work with organizations or teams to help them implement Agile, we spend a lot of time on getting comfortable with tradeoffs. Understanding them. Experimenting with them. Uncertainty and risk are the underlying components of tradeoffs, so you need to get comfortable with them too -- talking about risks, exploring the uncertainty, measuring them -- way beyond the traditional IRAAD.

Thinking in terms of tradeoffs encourages you to think like a contrarian and entertain the opposing values, even if only to affirm or explain the tradeoff decision. Rules can blind you by encouraging a single perspective. Thinking in terms of tradeoffs imposes the important discipline of defining all alternatives, all objectives, and all relevant consequences.

But thinking about all those tradeoffs takes time. Rules are so much faster, so much easier. Rules remove the angst of decision making. Too many options can leave us paralyzed and looking for rules that can be universally applied and spare us the arduous decision-making process. But even deciding to follow a rule involves a tradeoff. (Unless you are totally unconscious and operating on autopilot. Hopefully that is not true.)

So, if just about everything we do involves a tradeoff, the question becomes, Are we aware of the tradeoffs we are making and do we own the consequences?

Tradeoffs are part of our everyday life. Most of the time they are not that formal and need to be make quickly. Most of our behaviors are situational and require flexibility (dare I say agility) that rules just can't accommodate. This is where being clear and consistent in your values and principles (à la the Agile Manifesto) can help with your ad hoc tradeoffs. I'm not suggesting that you create a Franklin sheet to decide what shoes to wear today; I am suggesting that if you get a blister because you wore the too-tight salmon loafers because they match your outfit, you own it.

The classic project management tradeoff is the triple constraints of time, money, and scope. Thinking about tradeoffs requires that you identify what is being balanced and the priority of your objectives. Everything can't be a #1 priority. Life and projects are a series of negotiations.

When I work with new teams, one of the first things I have them do is establish a Team Operating Agreement. While these can come in many flavors -- from rigid, specific rules to euphemistic generic values -- I tend to guide teams closer to using practical principles than prescriptive rules. Behaving this way as a team requires that they maintain an active understanding of their principles in order to apply them to the daily tradeoffs the project will demand.

Tools like a tradeoff matrix, consequence tables, a Franklin sheet, or a balanced scorecard can provide a framework for making tradeoff decisions, but the real hard work is identifying the objectives or values you are trading off and the importance of each one. Often these are assumed or unspoken, complicating the resultant decision making. My goal with this article is not to propose a decision-making model but rather to look at the foundation of any decision-making approach -- the balancing of tradeoffs -- as a tool for team development and ownership. Because the real value is not just in getting the best decision, but in developing ownership for both the decision and the consequences. Ownership is key to engagement.

Experience is a difficult teacher because she gives the test first and the lesson afterward.

Getting comfortable with tradeoffs means you will live in an "it depends" world. As a consultant for 35 years, and a father for almost all those years, I guess this just doesn't bother me. I'm comfortably numb to it. While there may be a sense of safety in following the rules, I find them too restrictive and irresponsible.

We often give a subtle nod to our rules mindset when we use words that imply we don't have a choice. My daughters are quick to call me out if I ever use words of absolution like "have to, should, or can't" instead of "want to, could, or choose not to." I try not to be too obnoxious about this, but I think it is an important way of keeping me in a trade-off mindset. I wrote about this in an earlier article, Demands and Absolutes. Recognizing you are making a tradeoff means you are choosing, and I choose to challenge rules and instead consider everything a tradeoff. I guess it is just my nature. Apologies to all my teachers, especially the nuns.

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