Home > Agile, lean > Are you killing sparrows?

Are you killing sparrows?

For Mao, the increasing of the crops was crucial for his success: he not only needed the crops to feed his large population but he also wanted to build a financially strong empire.

So he asked (himself or others, who knows?) what he could do in order to increase the crops. What lowered the output and could be controlled? One answer is pests of different kinds. Rats, sparrows and a number of other animals were identified as enemies of the state, feeding themselves on the Chinese fields. Large campaigns promoting the killing of sparrows were created and the population followed his call.

Was Mao correct? Yes, the sparrows did pick the fields and when the sparrow was almost removed from the fauna, this problem was removed. But there is a big but… The sparrows might have picked the fields but they also killed other pests and with the sparrows gone, this created a much bigger problem than the sparrows had ever been.

Another time and another continent. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely tells us about the Israel daycare which had a problem with parents picking up their kids to late. To solve this, the daycare tested introducing a fee for late pickups. The effect was that parents started to see late pickups as an add-on to the product and the late pickups increased. Realizing that they’ve created a bigger problem, the daycare removed the fee, but since the social barrier against late pickups had been removed, the problem increased even more and took years to overcome.

When you have a problem like this, it is sometimes easy to think that you can just test something which seems plausible to lessen the problem. Lean, agile and scrum all points to this testing of small plausible improvements but what they don’t talk about is the risk that you kill all the sparrows and create a much bigger problem and a problem which is hard to remove. There is no CTRL+u in some real time situations. I’m not change resistant here, but I only lack a discussion about these risks and how they are avoided. I do think more people than the daycare and Mao made these mistakes, but who tells us about them?

If I would dare to guess what we can do to avoid killing the sparrows it is higher competence (the Mao example) and a lowered belief in the rationality of men. Behavioral Economics shows us in research after research that we are not rational but think we are. This overconfidence in people acting rational makes us create solutions which assume that people act logical and rational. In the daycare example, they assumed that the rational and logical solution for parents was avoiding the fee, but this is not how people work.

Looking forward to more discussions on how modern software development handles change without killing the sparrows

Categories: Agile, lean
  1. 2011/08/14 at 7:06 pm

    Hi Anna,

    Welcome back !! 🙂

    Long time since you last wrote !

    I really liked your analogies a lot.

  2. 2011/08/15 at 7:35 am

    Hi Anna,
    good post. I completely agree that a belief in simple cause-effect-relationships threatens to create medicines worse than the original disease. I find it comforting that more and more people now are beginning to look into systems thinking which is a great tool for getting a broader picture when we study behaviors and interactions between the parts. Systems thinking will only get us so far though. It helps us create hypotheses for models but we will also need to learn how to put these hypotheses to the test. I’ve only just begun looking into system dynamics myself but I sense that this is a good starting point for modeling our systems and testing our ideas before making irreversible changes.

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