Being honest with ourselves

Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycleSome time ago I spoke to Susan Atkinson, who has spent years dedicated to creating legal contracts for Agile projects. She is hugely thoughtful, knowledgeable and experienced, so I was very interested when she told me she had been writing a book on the subject. “However,” she added, “I’ve run into some conceptual problems, so I’m having to seriously rethink how I approach the subject”.

Fast forward to the present day. At the forthcoming Agile Business Conference Susan is speaking about a new approach, the flexible contract model, which replaces her work on Agile contracts. At Agile2013 in the US Ryan Shriver and Susan’s collaborator, Gabrielle Benefield, are talking on the same issue. Following years of work on Agile contracts, they’ve concluded there are fundamental flaws there and that a new approach is needed. They will be fascinating sessions.

I always admire people who admit their errors, particularly when they’ve invested so much in their former approach. It often reminds me of Tit for Tat and the Prisoner’s Dilemma…

Circa 1980, Robert Axelrod invited players to pitch their (programmed) Prisoner’s Dilemma strategies against each other [pdf]. Each program would play another repeatedly for a fixed duration for an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma match. Eventually every program played every other. The overall winner was one called Tit for Tat. It’s formula was the simplest of all: it co-operated initially and then always repeated its opponent’s last play. It consisted of only four lines of BASIC code and yet remained undefeated for many years.

The continual reminder to me of Tit for Tat is not so much about the value of co-operation, it is this other aspect of the program’s victory: it attained the highest overall score even though it wasn’t interested in winning any individual match.

The wider lesson is to ignore short term victories in favour of the long term. It’s always difficult to overcome long-held personal beliefs, even if we know the alternative is the right thing to do. But by being honest with ourselves—even if it means we have to admit to our mistakes—we are able to change for the better, and therefore act more effectively in an uncertain future.