Debate Without Dialogue Sucks

December 17, 2006 by
Filed under: Agility, Leadership, People, Process 

Back in February of this year, after attending a local presentation of the latest release of the Visual Studio Team System, I posted a rant titled Rigid Agility. In the post, I had expressed concern about a trend I had seen (and have seen more of since), where systems are being built to support tailorable processes with mechanisms to enforce movement through a set of states. I still see this as inherently non-agile in its implementations, despite the intrinsic value in the products and spin from the vendors.

A few weeks later, David Anderson (who was at the time the architect of the MSF methodology with Microsoft) posted a blog entry titled Who’s Calling FDD an Oxymoron?, stating that I was not aware of the facts (he did admit that he was put up to posting from his boss). David has since moved on to Corbis, and seems to be taking a reasonable approach to introducing change there.

Here we are, 10 months later, December 2006. His blog entry only came to my attention yesterday, even though I was explicitly named in a less than favourable manner.

Two very different positions have been posted. One based on my experience with a range of companies, tailorable frameworks, tool-based process enforcement, and a presentation of an early release of same from Microsoft. A rebuttal based on reading my posting and commenting, from someone deeply engaged in the framework and tool development for this very field. No dialogue, just two different perspectives. Bullets of opinion that can’t help but be taken out of context.

I have seen relatively few successful implementations of frameworks and methodologies. By successful, I mean practical for the business, commonly understood and bought into by the team, and appropriately followed for effective implementation, even when schedule pressures loom. As I have noted elsewhere, it’s not a concern with the original tool or framework, it’s a poor interpretation from the client side that leads to a weak implementation in most cases. This didn’t come across in my original entry. Taken out of context as it was, I could see David having trouble with my posting.

But enough of my opinions, that’s not what this rant is about.

The grief I have is that the explosive growth of blogging has given everyone an opportunity to voice their opinion, but there is precious little dialogue occurring.

David is likely more qualified to blog than I am, and I would call my newsletter perhaps a semi-blog. Sure there is an RSS feed, there is a somewhat random bursts of thoughts, and a feedback link at the bottom of each one. It is not run within a blogging tool, though, and there isn’t a threaded comments or trackback capability (this has since changed).

Whether we are qualified or whether this is a blog is not the point. The point is that there is a lot of stakes we all put in the sand, with little convergence. It is not just David and I, it is the entire blogosphere (sheesh, I detest that word as much as the spellchecker does).

Using this blogging mechanism, it is virtually impossible to resolve differences to come to a common ground. Postings are read without knowing the background of the post or the wealth of experience behind the words, people are quoted and referenced out of context, and comments tend to be polarized in the camps of violent agreement or violent opposition. I have seen the term ‘Blog Bile’ in a number of different places now. It can be as bad as those e-mails you wish you had never sent, but in a public forum, with permalinks.

Except for the ‘A-list’ bloggers, most posts on blogs will have only a few comments. If you are ambivalent, you likely don’t comment at all (for this newsletter, almost all actual feedback is in agreement with my perspective – I assume that the few prompt unsubscriptions are indications that I have rubbed someone the wrong way…). Everything is very one-sided, biased towards the site you are on at the time.

When we start from the position of making our own point, we are already going to be stepping on someone’s toes. We can’t possibly know the perspectives of our entire readership, except that the majority would be philosophically aligned, or they would head elsewhere to get their fill. Blogging then becomes more a case of building a following than converging on common understanding. Over time, our opinions are reinforced through the feeds we follow. The camps grow further and further apart.

I’m just as guilty as the next person with blogging. I try as much as possible to use this as a mechanism to clarify my thoughts on something I have experienced at a client site, to try to step back and to see if there might be a lesson learned here or there. There are times, though, when I state a position that I know is not that popular with the entire readership. I find myself disappointed, but not surprised, by the lack of dialogue.

We are trained in school to use debate as a mechanism for defending our position. The ones that have mastered this skill can even succeed in defending a position they don’t believe in. When politicians and bloggers debate, we see behaviour that is more like loading for bear and enduring the other person’s position than understanding and appreciating it. The goal is to have your voice heard, in a fashion that is compelling enough to claim victory.

Claiming victory, perhaps, if only in the narrow context of your statements alone. Gaining wisdom is another matter altogether.

What is missing is the mechanism for genuine appreciation of the other perspective before drawing a conclusion. I’m not sure this will ever be effectively built into the blogging environment (threaded comments just don’t cut it), but appreciation and empathy remain tools at our disposal when we are engaged in face to face dialogues. We don’t need to agree, but we need to listen actively.

And we all need to do it more often.

As David suggested 10 months ago, I would definitely be open to visiting Building 25 on the Redmond campus to learn the innovation that has taken place to effectively support the CMMI in an agile fashion. Better yet, I’d like to see the successful implementations in more software development shops, but this is beyond Microsoft’s, or anyone else’s, sphere of control.

I sent a link of this to David as well (there was no response). After reading one post, I must admit I was a bit inflamed, and felt a bit libeled. After reading more, I think we see many things from a similar perspective, and would love an opportunity for dialogue. – JB

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