Saturday, May 19, 2012

Viking Culture - An Agile Approach

What do Vikings have in common with lean and agile approaches of Software Engineering or Enterprise Architecture? How does your quest find its way in troubled and uncertain waters? I have heard talks about engineering that date back to the 18th century, but I would like to go back 7th century. As I was reading "The Hammer and the Cross" by Robert Ferguson, some similarities from a long gone period struck me. Engineering with little resources and the ability to cope in a hostile environment, while still having some cultural, mercantile and warfare success during a few hundred years. They discovered America 500 years before Columbus. It certainly has influenced Northern part of Europe (eg. Great Britain and Normandy) (This is no cultural ranking or justification, but used to highlight some aspects of agile and lean practices. See footnote)

Risky knowledge seeking
Gaining knowledge was very central in Viking culture and Northern heathendom. You where obliged to seek knowledge and experience, and at any risk. Odin (the main god) sacrificed one eye to obtain knowledge. So at the very foundation of culture is bold knowledge seeking. Knowledge seeking actually means that failure will happen. This together with transparency (see below) provided a basis for trust and forgiveness when failing, and not an embarrassment.
This is most certainly a foundation of software engineering as well, you will get nowhere without seeking knowledge. Be inquisitive, find combinations, test new technology, and understand its appliance. And then being patient as you convince the stakeholders and project members the new possibilities and how to apply them. Be bold and brave!

Don't give oath
Early in the book Ferguson quotes that some Viking party when having meeting with some King of England, where reluctant to give an Oath. The agile view would be that it is first when you get into a situation you know what to do. You just can't promise that you will act in a certain way, its depends on the situation.
This may be brought back to up-front design, estimates and project plans. The nature of any project with a degree of uncertainty, is that you will face elements that you can't foresee. So just don't promise anything, you will regret it.

Admit and go free
This is also about transparency. Very central to the culture was the "Ting". This show a strong natural inclination towards the involvement of the whole community in common decisions and in courts of law. Living scarcely across the country, communities met both at local and central places to discuss law, and to judge actions. The gatherings show a balance between consensus driven decisions and local actions depending on the situation. It also show that transparency is important to get consensus, and that individuals understand the purpose and interpretation of law. If you failed, you will be forgiven, provided that your actions was well intended.
Viking "Longhouse"
As an example: If you killed someone (in daylight or by fire at night...) and you passed 3 settlements without telling anyone, then you would be sentenced to death (or being classified as an "outlaw"). Now, if you admitted your action (it may have been an accident, or depending on the situation it was considered self-defense ;-) ), that provides transparency and you involve the community in you humble action.
In engineering, it is vital that errors are acted upon and that -- by admitting or taking responsibility --, you take part of the team and handle things up-front, instead of pretending that nothing happened. You actions will come for a day, so it is better to face it.
In Enterprise Architecture is about balancing business and IT. Central steering (principles, target architecture and business value), with local actions (understanding purpose and executing projects).

You can't cheat nature
Surviving in a climate where the soil is frozen 6 months of the year take some planning, being diligent, and taking risk. In this type of condition, it all depends on how well you plan, cooperate, gain craftsmanship and do your life. You can't survive by lying or cheating. You can't cheat nature.
In our discipline that system you build better work. You can't pretend that it works. It is not a report, not a picture, or some abstract stuff: it is working software. It is out there for every user to see. You can't hide.
On the other hand if you have vast resources, you can make it happen even without a plan or good craftsmanship. It will just take longer time and cost all too much. So even without an agile approach, working software is possible, but not desirable.

History has its stories of success and failure. Success occurs now and then, but everything seems to fail in the end. Where are we heading?

(There are certainly other aspects of the Vikings that does not fit. The book is all about why the Viking age had such a turbulent end. And there are certainly aspects of other great cultures of ancient times that would serve as examples.)
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Viking Culture - An Agile Approach by Tormod Varhaugvik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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