Let’s say that you can type 15 words per minute using a two-fingered method. You want to get faster, perhaps up to 40 wpm, using all 10 fingers. During the learning process, as you suffer through unfamiliar motions, your typing speed and productivity speed will suffer for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. Maybe your speed will drop to only two or three wpm. Slowly, you’ll build back up to your previous rate of 15 wpm… and then you’ll keep going faster and faster.
Ken Pugh, in his keynote address at the Enterprise Software Development Conference, referred to that period during the learning curve, when your productivity drops while you master new skills, as “chaos.” His metaphor for the learning curve, though, wasn’t typing. Ken used snowboarding metaphors to discuss how development teams can suffer when you’re trying to get them to adopt new practices and methodologies, such as agile development.
Ken is one of the most creative, most thoughtful Big Thinkers in the software development field. While I don’t snowboard, his point was completely clear. Looking at a curve that he drew—with the lower initial skill level on the left, then the dip into chaos while new skills are mastered, and then a higher attained skill level on the right—I immediately decided to refer to that dip as the “dreaded chasm of chaos.”
(Hey, I like alliterations. What do you expect?)
It’s hard to bring teams through the dreaded chasm of chaos. When it comes to typing, of course, most people accept that the 10-fingered method is faster than two-finger typing, and thus it’s a pretty safe bet. But when you’re adopting new platforms, new tools or new development methodologies, it’s not obvious or guaranteed that the new approach is better than the old. It’s not clear to managers or developers that it’s worth the pain and chaos of leaving a comfort zone, or that the change will ever pay for the lost productivity required to navigate the learning curve.
In other words, there’s no proven ROI, no sure return on investment, for the effort of enduring that chaos.
How do you cross the dreaded chasm of chaos when you’re not sure that the outcome will be positive? Three words: “leap of faith.” When it comes to 10-fingered typing, not much faith is required. When it comes to spending the time, money and political capital to convince management and development teams to make that painful transition, the required leap of faith is a lot bigger.
Your arguments will probably be accompanied by lots of graphs and analysis documents, since everyone will need to know how big the chasm is, how much time and money it will take to cross it, and what the benefits are of getting to the other side. But there’s more than a cold-blooded business analysis in making this type of change; there’s an emotional component involved. You don’t want grudging acceptance. What you want is excitement for the future and an enthusiastic willingness to endure the dreaded chasm of chaos, because the grass will be greener on the other side (if I may mix my metaphors).
While only a few minutes of Ken’s riveting talk about “snowboarding, windsurfing, backpacking, and the art of software development” focused on this notion of chaos, it truly fired my imagination. Thanks, Ken!
Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zeichick. Read his blog at ztrek.blogspot.com.