Condemned to Repeat the Past?

It seems – at least to me – unlikely that I’d be moved to write a post by learning that O.J. Simpson, thirteen years to the day (!) after being acquitted of murder, was convicted of kidnapping and robbery. My first thought was this: it may take a while, but as Shakespere said in The Merchant of Venice, “at the length truth will out.”

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re on a project, you come to a milestone, a crossroads in the schedule, you take stock of where you are, and suddenly comes that feeling: you’ve been here before. And last time, it wasn’t fun when you arrived at this point. How could you have ended here again, after all you learned last time?

If you’re on a team, maybe it’s even worse – you’re not the only one who remembers the past, now that you’re facing a present that looks just like that ugly memory. Sure, I could have missed the signs we were heading towards ruin, but all of us? Isn’t this why I work in a team, so that my teammates can save me from myself?

I remember when, sitting in Ken Schwaber’s Certified Scrum Master class, I first saw his slide warning about the challenges we’d face as intrepid Scrum Masters when we returned to work:

  •  The era of opacity
  •  The tyranny of the waterfall
  •  The illusion of command and control
  •  The belief in magic

The belief in magic.” I sat bolt upright in my chair, realizing that I’d spend years and years (and years) again and again believing, or hoping, or praying that what I could see coming somehow wouldn’t come.

“Sure, last time things didn’t work because of a, b, and c, but this time, things will be different,” I’d think. “Next week, we’ll catch up” (after six successive weeks of not catching up). “This time, QA will discover the really bad bugs at the start of testing” (instead of near the end). And “this time, no one will get sick,” or “we’ll be done before Christmas for sure.” “If I can just spend one more day trying to fix this bug, I’m sure I’ll get it done.” “It’s been two weeks, now – that kidney stone is sure to pass tomorrow and Paul will be back on the team pairing and testing.” You have your own list, don’t you?

I’ve been compiling an new list recently, and it’s even more horrific.

  • “We’ve been writing tests throughout the project, but here at the end, it’s crunch time, so let’s speed up by dropping tests.”
  • “Yeah, pairing works pretty well, and it means we don’t have to do those code reviews, but heck, we can work twice as fast if we split up and work alone.”
  • “But we have to work longer hours until we get done; we won’t keep this up forever, just until we get over this hump.”
  • “Well, if we get the code feature-complete, we can use the QA period to find and fix the bugs before ship.”

I want to believe,” we think. In the end, perhaps, we’re thinking no more clearly than Mr. Simpson, that we won’t get caught this time, that what doing is “right.” Magic tricks. done right, are awfully convincing. It’s a short hop from the willing suspension of disbelief to knowing self-delusion.

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