Ancient Greek Philosophical Solutions to Modern Information Technology Delivery Problems
Life does not come with a complete instruction book, nor can we predict what our future holds. Also, why would we go to great lengths to plan the future of life in excruciating detail to the day we die and then force ourselves to follow that plan, not deviating from it a single time? Would anyone remain committed to a plan when external circumstances have changed? Yet this is what traditional project methodologies attempt. On the other end of the spectrum are agile methodologies which endeavor to incrementally deliver value and improve, akin to the approach ancient Greek philosophers used in pursuit of living well. Life and Information Technology projects have an eerie similarity, and we may learn important clues to managing projects if we look to how ancient Greek philosophers sought to find the good life.
In the complex and rapidly changing arena of IT, managing risks of scope creep, growing costs, and delays in schedule produce overhead. IT teams can learn and apply ancient Greek philosophical practices to manage these risks. These practices help teams drive clarity, prepare for adverse events, and improve learning, while enabling individual workers to live holistically. Many ancient Greek ideas have re-appeared in a contemporary IT delivery method known as Agile, which seeks incremental improvements with tight feedback loops, as a smart way to manage feature creep, burgeoning costs, and delays in schedule. These constraints have often been called the “Iron Triangle” (see figure 1). Organizations which successfully manage the risks from these constraints stand to win in the market.
Figure 1 Measey
Two major challenges IT projects face are managing swift shifts in technological solutions and determining the proper project methodology. Teams unable to grapple with rapid changes in technological landscapes and ascertain the right delivery methodology, risk significant overhead costs related to the Iron Triangle. The first challenge, rapid technology development, drives much of the economy today.
Technology floods people’s lives and the IT arena plays a significant role in the deluge of solutions to many business problems. Just as early oil titans rushed to seek, capture, and sell oil in 19th century America, a new rush has emerged in the last 15 years, only this time it is based in data and information. Tim O’Reilly, founder of the company which creates popular media for learning IT, said the following in 2005, “The race is on to own certain classes of core data: location, identity, calendaring of public events, product identifiers and namespaces” (Dames 14). This idea of a race to own and manage data was eventually characterized by the phrase “Data Is the New Oil,” meaning the 21st century global economy would be powered by data, as oil drove economies in the 19th and 20th centuries (Dames). This data rush has birthed numerous companies and solutions to business problems which fuels the frantic pace.
As businesses try to keep pace with innovation, IT project managers’ job has become more difficult to manage scope, cost, and schedule. An academic researcher and an IT consultant, with more than 30 years’ experience “observed the same phenomenon over and over – the pace of technological change often outruns and undermines the best project management planning efforts” (Durney and Donnelly 642). If IT project managers effectively manage the delivery, companies will win increased profits. The second challenge, therefore, is determining which methodology to leverage for IT project management.
Traditional project management methodologies attempt to anticipate and plan for multi-faceted risks to the project via large chunks of work. Larger pieces of work bring significant overhead costs through detailed planning. When managers go to great lengths to make exhaustive plans, they fall into the mental trap of never deviating from the plan regardless of changes in landscape. Today, managers have options other than traditional project management methodologies. An article in The Journal of Computer Information Systems noted importantly that traditional methods are most likely unsuitable for intricate, ambiguous, and time-constrained projects and therefore, agile methodologies “show promise” (Fernandez and Fernandez 10). The core mindset of agile methodologies is to focus on delivering value via incremental pieces of work and steadily improve the team’s way of working.
Modern IT workers should take note of the similarities between agile principals and the spirit of ancient Greek philosophy. One word which ties these two ideas together is: incremental. Truly agile teams seek to deliver functional solutions with constant feedback from customers and themselves. Simply stated, they seek frequent, incremental improvement. Similarly, a recent philosophy author wrote this of Roman Stoicism (which stems from the ancient Greeks),
Roman Stoicism is a kind of path that focuses on making small, incremental amounts of progress each day, one step at a time. No one is perfect, and that’s why Stoicism, at least in part, is a practice: and it’s not just a practice that you undertake, but something that you practice at—in the same way a musician or an athlete practices—to get better at what you do. (Fideler ch. 1)
While there are many comparable practices, this paper will discuss three and how they relate to an agile mindset.
First is the Socratic method, which drives clarity between individuals on an agile team, especially those engaged in paired programming. The second and third are the Stoic rituals premeditatio malorum and end-of-day review. These relate to planning and retrospective ceremonies on agile teams and provide strong feedback mechanisms to deliver and improve incrementally. This essay will discuss each philosophical practice and elaborate on the corresponding agile practice, along with how each one can alleviate the risks of the Iron Triangle while delivering value to customers. The first practice hearkens back to the person who started this grand conversation: Socrates.
While helping his fellow citizens discover the good life, Socrates pursued his inquiry in an organized fashion, which found its way into academia and the world of Information Technology. This practice, known as the Socratic dialogue or method, is a form of questioning and discussion. Through posing questions and answering them, participants confirm definitions, exchange ideas, and solidify clarifications. The process reveals knowledge through gathered evidence and allows all participants to bring their collective experiences to the discussion (Skordoulis and Dawson 994). The use of the Socratic method, coupled with an attitude of curiosity, can be valuable for IT teams working in a complex environment.
While the back-and-forth may seem onerous, the organization of the method ensures both parties have mutual comprehension, as evidenced by two IT workers who practiced and shared their experience from using the Socratic method. The first found it to be effective in curtailing misunderstandings and to drive greater clarity, which reduced recycle time and waste. The method helped her weed out emotions, put a check on assumptions, elucidate ambiguous ideas and uncover contradictions for the team to “strengthen its foundation for future decision-making or actions” (Apple). The other IT worker found the approach useful in her paired programming efforts. As a junior software developer, she learned the method from her mentor, and found it helped her become more mindful of decisions she was making and why. The process aided the conscious observation of work and prevented waste (Davis).
The Socratic method relates to the sixth principal in the Agile Manifesto, which states, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” The Agile Manifesto does not elaborate on the technique of face-to-face conversation, nevertheless, the principal of economical and efficacious communication is the key. Minimizing communication issues in a team prevents rework and recycle which translates into lower costs and better schedule management, all due to use of the Socratic method. The next two practices come from the Stoics and act as bookends in terms of time and deliverables.
The second practice is the Stoic premeditatio malorum which was used by ancient practicing Stoics to anticipate unfortunate events before they occurred. While much has been written on this practice, a recent article in the academic journal Metaphilosophy combines multiple sources to succinctly explain this Stoic ritual. The author notes,
Events outside our control are indifferent to us, and we must train ourselves to respond to these events with equanimity. To internalize this lesson, Stoics practiced negative visualization, which requires practitioners to vividly imagine painful or tragic outcomes (the Romans referred to this technique as premeditatio malorum, the premeditation of evils). (Hidalgo 422)
Furthermore, this ritual has the specialized effect of contemplating events which matter to the individual. If the Stoic does not fear the loss of his job, then he would not waste time thinking of this potential harm. However, if the Stoic fears the loss of his home, then this would be an appropriate mental exercise to contemplate. The exercise is right sized for the individual. While a Stoic's practice of this habit has the aim of developing inner calm in the face of adverse events, modern day IT teams increase their agility to respond to unplanned events, by participating in a similar exercise.
Two agile ceremonies, Program Increment Planning, and backlog refinement, take a right-sized approach for dealing with dependencies and blockers to the delivery of software solutions. Their approaches are akin to premeditatio malorum. In these regular meetings, teams work with each other, external teams, and customers to widen their mental aperture to anticipate impediments which might prevent the delivery of a feature. With Program Increment Planning, multiple teams and customers meet to brainstorm risks to the incremental plan. After noting risks, they discuss each one and decide either to remediate, or own, or accept or mitigate each potential hindrance (“PI Planning”). The spirit of the exercise is to foresee obstacles and form a plan to address them. A similar exercise is performed, on a smaller scale, in backlog refinement. In this meeting the team refines small chunks of work by describing the outcome and conducting a risk review of the work. As risks are identified, the user story indicates how to address them (Fakihi). By planning in smaller increments of work, teams lower risk. Many times, changes in requirements occur, and if a traditional project method spent a significant amount of time planning for such risks, and they do not materialize, then the project experiences waste in time and effort. But if teams focus on highly probable and foreseeable risks, waste in excessive risk management is prevented.
While premeditatio malorum looks to the future, the third practice is the Stoic ritual which occurs after events and time have passed and is called the end-of-day review. This exercise was noted by the Stoic Seneca. In his essay On Anger, he admonishes the practitioner to review the day, and analyze how he acted with virtue or not, self-praising actions performed with virtue and self-forgiving and self-admonishing for acts which require correction (Lucius Annaeus Seneca et al. 91). Almost 2,000 years later, a Chicago school teacher applied this same end-of-day reflection as she applied Stoic practices in her life and school room. In one month of practicing the end-of-day review, she noted that despite a challenging month, she made perceptible improvement in her character, simply from observing, noting her reactions and self-coaching (Guenther 217). In a distinctly similar manner, the agile team’s sprint retrospective not only reviews the past period but seeks to keep constant attention on self-observation and improvement.
At the end of a team’s work sprint, which typically lasts two weeks, the team sets aside focused time to review any aspect of team dynamics. While teams may concentrate on the work they delivered – how well or poorly it went – other topics from team values, communication issues, conflicts, behaviors, and interactions are open for review, debate, discussion, and follow-up (Derby and Larsen Introduction page). More mature teams may take time to give each other kudos to instill stronger camaraderie. If done properly, with openness, trust and transparency, the team retrospective can lead to insights and action items to improve team dynamics, unity, and friendship. Improved teamwork leads to the team’s ability to deliver efficient, successful IT projects. The inspect and adapt process is so important, it is one of the bedrock agile principals, stated in the Agile Manifesto: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
The three ancient Greek practices discussed in this paper and summarized in table 1, are only a subset of ideas which have analogues to agile delivery methods. More could be written on other ancient Greek philosophical mindsets and how they relate to agile practices. This essay does not necessarily argue that the aims of agile principals and ancient Greek philosophical practices are the same. But perhaps, there is value for the modern IT worker to be familiar with ancient Greek philosophical practices with the view of practicing philosophy as a way of life.
As cited earlier in the essay, Hidalgo wrote an article on the concept of philosophy as a way of living. His writing largely drew on the work of Pierre Hadot, who argued philosophy, as we understand it today, is vastly different than how the ancients viewed it. For the ancients, philosophy was about lived practices, not purely discourse – there was no wall between philosophical discussions and a way of living. Every dialogue, practice and ritual had the aim of “transformation of one’s way of being and living, and a quest for wisdom” (Hadot et al. 275). The value and intent of this essay was to open the world of practiced philosophy to the modern IT worker; to show them the richness of practical agile methodologies and their relationship with ancient philosophical concepts. Indeed, the modern IT worker can live a philosophical life in all that he does, from his personal life, to work on IT projects as a member of a team. Making connections between efficient agile delivery methods and the heritage of ancient Greek philosophical practices will only enhance his pursuit to live the good life.
Life and delivering IT solutions in an ever-evolving world have much in common. We change course in life often, based on feedback from what the world has to offer. With time as our most precious commodity, we owe it to ourselves to take an agile approach to plans and changes. Like life, IT workers must embrace change and enjoy the journey. By incrementally making progress towards their aims, via crisp dialogue and tight feedback loops through preparation and inspection, they gain confidence and remove many worries and anxieties of sticking to a rigid plan. Ancient Greek thought and the agile mindset have much in common and both approaches equip the IT worker with a toolset to tackle any obstacle or challenge in life.
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