You Can’t Break it Down Until You Understand it

sea-beach-boat-grass

“Furious activity is no substitute for understanding”

– H. H. Williams

One of the first things that agile or iterative development demands of us is that we should break down our work into very small chunks. This challenge is one of the first hurdles faced by teams that are adopting sprints and trying to make all of their work fit into a tiny little 2 week time box. I’ve seen it over and over again. The first question folks ask is, “How can I break this down into pieces small enough to fit in the sprint?” My response, inadequate though it may be, is some variation on, “It’s not hard. People do it every day.” I know – not the best answer. I often get reactions that range anywhere from frank denial to outright disbelief. It just can’t be done!

I know. I get it. I really get it. If you aren’t used to it, the first time you deal with breaking work down into tiny chunks is like running into a cognitive wall. I remember the first iterative project that I did. I understood the model. The concepts made sense: break things down into small chunks and then iterate. Easy.

Only it wasn’t easy at all.

I remember sitting in front of my monitor thinking, “What meaningful piece of functionality could we do in a sprint?”

Nothing came to mind. I drew a total blank.

It was dreadful. We were working on a new product, something completely new to the market…and I had no idea what I was doing. We had no clue. That’s not to say that we were incompetent. Far from it. We all knew that we didn’t know much, and that was a big problem. Fortunately, we overcame those challenges. Unfortunately, like many people, I conveniently forgot most of those lessons and moved on.

I had another reminder the other day. I was working on the boat I’ve been building. So much of building a boat early on was big intimidating chunks of work. I had no idea what I was getting into. Everything seemed daunting. Weeks of effort. However, after 3 years of working on it in my garage, I now find myself doing something completely different. Now I can wander out and create a long list of tiny tasks quickly and spontaneously. I know much more now. I can see hundreds of little tasks that need to be done. Little stuff, literally just a few minutes of work.

So I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, but I learned, and as I learned I was able to break things down. So how did I learn? By getting started and making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Sometimes I think mistakes are the only thing I’m good at. So now when people ask how to break things down, maybe my answer is, “Just get started, the answer will come to you as you learn the problem domain.”

Of course, if that fails, you can always take up boat building.

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