The Decline of Process and the Rise of ‘Good Enough’

Designing and building software is at least as complex and demanding of intellectual labour as the building of ships, large buildings or suspension bridges. If the number of failed software projects is anything to go by, perhaps it’s is even more difficult than these.

CC SA Photography by User: MrX

CC SA Photography by User: MrX

In modern history at least, the underlying assumption when performing complex projects like building railways or operating systems has been that you should at least apply forward planning and preferably repeatable processes as well.

However, in recent years two things have changed this assumption in software development. The first is the Agile movement and the second is a general acceptance of imperfection in exchange for novelty or availability.

Agile (which includes scrum and more recently things like kanban and lean) assumes that you cannot plan your way to success. You may have an initial idea, but it will change as you work on it. Events will conspire to show you a better way than you had at first imagined, and so you should roll with that.

What’s also interesting is that this approach seems to be born from, or perhaps has giving birth to, a similar phenomenon in the products themselves. Google raised eyebrows when they released Gmail in 2009 with a “beta” moniker. This had rarely been seen in public. A live, public product that was also unashamedly unfinished. Since then the notion of getting the public to kick your tyres has meant that almost anything new on line passes through a beta stage.

Of course, unlike ships, large buildings or suspension bridges, software can be evolved while in use. But the idea that a product might be unfinished, liable to change (or even sudden discontinuance) might also be connected to a deeper trend that has taken hold since the second world war. The value of availability seems to have overtaken the value of virtuosity or “quality” in the sense of “lasting”. From disposable razors, to buildings with a designed lifetime of decades rather than centuries, and now to the digital world where we have truly entered the age of non-persistence in all things.

Our cathedral-building ancestors would be appalled at this, I’m sure.