Lazy thinking: IT shibboleths, sloganeering, and sacred cows

At one company I worked, the executive team had come up with a list of core corporate values. There were 11 of these values, and they were mentioned and pushed in every company meeting.

In fact, “Goals and Values” wallet cards were handed out to each employee.  And let me make sure I affirm one important thing here, prior to what I’m about to say: these were, without a doubt, very worthwhile values: “Stay close to our customers”, “pursue excellence in all we do”, and so on. Note that I still carry this wallet card with me today, two decades later.

But here’s the thing: the values, despite all their great qualities, became cliches, overused, cited on every conceivable occasion and for every possible purpose. I remember the company president at the time: he even roamed the halls every once in a while, popping his head into random conference rooms, barking one or more of the company values at the nonplussed attendees: “Well? Are we staying close to the customer?” And in almost every meeting, people would spend substantial time itemizing earnestly how well a proposal fit in with the values, sometimes more than the time they spent explaining the actual pros and cons of the proposal itself.

Here’s where I’m going with this (and do hang in there for the connection I’ll draw specifically to IT): easy references to the goals and values became for many a substitute for actual thinking. And substitutes for actual thinking are seductive and rife.  But alas, good ideas and concepts, even when innately wise and useful, can turn counterproductive when simply used de rigueur and without thinking. Most insidiously: they can be used to justify what you want or don’t want to do anyway, often for reasons you can’t or won’t state transparently.

At its extreme, such behavior, such unquestioning embracing and sloganeering, is downright lazy, a species of lip service, even a kind of ideological technopolitical correctness, as it were. And when these easy phrases pervade a culture or work environment (or, say, a Twitter hashtag community), it becomes an echo chamber: no one dares speak out on the opposing side of anything which has one of these magical shibboleths attached to it. And as a result, people use those slogans, both consciously and unconsciously, to exploit the slogans’ incantational power, and to avoid the hard work and actual accountability for having to reason through a real stance on important issues.

In everyday life in American politics, one example of this would be when people reflexively cry “socialism” about nearly any program involving government spending. Such people are often not really sure what socialism actually is, but they have figured out that using it as an insult works really well to make many people recoil in horror from whatever is being so depicted.

Now to the IT connection on this: as I’ve written before, IT black-and-white thinking is generally and distressingly common, and that syndrome often emerges via the embracing of such slogans. In fact, there’s a whole set of “magic incantations” that I see get trotted out in IT circles as a way to win arguments without the awkward and risky messiness of actually having to support one’s viewpoint with anything much more concrete than the incantation itself. Most commonly, these IT “magic incantations” take the form of bugaboos: tools, processes, and perspectives that are somehow loftily deemed to represent “much that is wrong with our industry”.

The list is long of the IT incantational bugaboos currently in vogue and responsible for justifying this kind of sloppy thinking: muda, waterfall, command and control, fixed mindset, Theory X, Taylorism, “that’s a smell”, “you’re not open-minded”. Let’s look at a couple of these in depth, then a few more in passing:

Muda

At one client a few years back, I saw an internal operations IT person strongly resist providing some necessary input for an internal IT audit, simply by shrugging that the effort seemed to him to be “muda. Without bothering to think through the actual business need, he had grasped onto a slogan that gave him (or so he believed) an ironclad, facile excuse to reject something that in truth he just didn’t feel like doing. Alas, “No MUDA” often becomes some folks’ loud and selectively applied battle cry about the less fun parts of their jobs.

Or as Gene Hughson put it, “Some people latch on to ideas that tell them they shouldn’t have to do things they don’t like to do. Responsibility, however, sometimes requires us to do things we don’t like to do. “ 

“Not Agile”

I’m hardly the first to note that Agile, which of course has so much to recommend it, unfortunately has often become a sloganized rationalization in and of itself. Various IT stances or situations are often met on Twitter with the simple-minded and full retort of “not agile”. I don’t know what such a response really even means, or why such responders believe it to be a mic-dropping argument-ender; it seems that it is often little more than a knee-jerk substitute for “I don’t like that.”

More extensively but in a similar vein of black-and-white-ism: in a particularly glaring use of self-referential and self-righteous quasi-scriptural devoteeism, we’re told that “all you need to do is read the Scrum Guide and the Agile Manifesto to figure out if you are taking an Agile approach to building software.”

Let’s list just a few more examples of wannabe mic drops: i.e., sloganeering, black-and-white responses to IT discussions, often substituting for actual thought and discourse:

So what’s the bottom line? Easy: don’t fall for this kind of sloppy thinking, either in yourself or in others. Think through the core issues for yourself; don’t just adopt someone else’s slogan (or dogged scriptural adherence to a manifesto) to tell you how or what to think. In fact, consider reading up on both sides of an issue, rather than accept dogma from ideologues. Beware of received truths that usually turn out to be in service of some unstated sacred cow, lurking as the real driver of someone’s stance.

Don’t tolerate lazy, automatic thinking, in your team, your peers, your superiors, or yourself. Goals and values are great as focusing statements, but they can’t and shouldn’t replace your brain.

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