Extreme Programming and culture

The other day, I received the Cutter IT Journal issue XP and Culture Change – which I was eager to read because of my recent insight that what I’ve been thinking of as software architecture would be better described as team culture (of which architecture is a component – or, rather, from which it emerges; see my post Agile culture).

Laurent Bossavit’s article The Unbearable Lightness of Programming: A Tale of Two Cultures (unfortunately no longer available online) is very good. He looks back on two “failed” Extreme Programming (XP) projects (at two different companies) and finds the reason for the failure in the organizational cultures “clashing” with XP. He examines the cultures and what it was about them that caused the clash.

Also interesting was David Putman’s article Are You Mature Enough for XP? (not available online) where he identifies two extremes: “emergent and enforced” cultures. An emergent culture is, basically, one where both employees and management have the power to influence the culture. In an enforced culture, management defines the culture, with little or no possibility for employees to influence. Putman writes that an emergent culture is required for XP to work.

Putman also discusses his company’s transition to XP, and I particularly found the following passage interesting:

What this means in cultural terms is that the people in the organization with the greatest influence on the work culture were able, with the assistance of the mentors, to reshape the culture of our company.

Putman is talking about how they sent “eight senior members of the [Research and Development] team on an XP “immersion” course [...]. Following that, [they] had several experienced mentors on site for many weeks.” These were the people with the greatest influence on the culture. In an enforced culture (that is, a hierarchical organization), this would have been the managers – which to me speaks loudly in favor of the emergent culture, where the influential people are likely to be actual developers. As Laurent Bossavit writes, “But one thing I am certain of is that the kind of culture in which XP will thrive isn’t one that can be achieved by top-down dictates.” In other words, XP can’t be enforced on team members: it must be accepted by them.

I definitely agree with Bossavit as he writes that XP “serves as a litmus test for cultural problems”. Since I began to study XP, I have found it easier to identify what it is about an organization that makes software development ineffective.

These two articles are about how corporate culture can collide with XP. This is very interesting and important, but what I have been thinking about is team culture (which indeed can clash with the corporate culture) and how software architecture can emerge from it (if you allow it to). If you plan the architecture, it must harmonize with the team culture – unless you have an enforced culture, where you as programmer should obey whatever directives come from above. But for innovation to take place, an emergent culture is, in my experience, far superior.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on October 29, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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