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The Quixote Syndrome

they’ll come for wool and go back shorn

Action without observation is at the center of the story Cervantes gave us five centuries ago, and it’s at the core of why so many Agile initiatives fall short. Taking a windmill for a dragon, Don Quixote’s choice of lance and shield were ill-suited to the matter at hand. We don’t need better Agile methodologies so much as we need to pay attention to where our current practices are out of touch with the reality of the work at hand, and to leverage Agile principles to arrive at an appropriate response to the present challenge.

The Problem of Best Practices

The problem of best practices can be summed up as adopting a practice based on some expert’s claim that it worked well for them. Learning a new technical practice requires commitment of time and resources. Since there’s only so much you can do at once, adopting one practice preempts the option to taking on another, potentially blocking you from realizing the changes best suited for your context.

There are good practices in context, but there are no best practices.

— Cem Kaner

Sustained investment is needed for a team to master any given technical practice area. The effort is usually good in theory but it only pays off if the effort corresponds to the specific challenges faced by that team. It’s not good enough to get better in general, but to get better in ways that improve outcomes for the work at hand.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

Every theory is correct in its own world, but the problem is that the theory may not make contact with this world.

— W. Edwards Deming

Most technical practices you read about are good practices, but is it a practice that remediates the most critical, immediate problems you face?

Action without Observation

If your doctor goes straight for an injection without first checking your symptoms, you might seek a second opinion. But we see Agile experts get away with making sweeping practice recommendations for a development team when there’s been little effort to understand the nature of the team, the challenges they face or what their problems actually are.

They’ll come for wool and go back shorn.

— Sancho Panza

We can learn from the war stories of old Agile veterans, but don’t assume that the same strategy and tactics make sense for your campaign. Who goes to battle with someone else’s plan?

Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.

— Jack Kerouac

The Quixote Syndrome

Don Quixote

The Quixote Syndrome is a disconnect between the information that is available to us through observation and what we think we know. To improve our odds of seeing windmills for what they are, we need to enrich the vocabulary of our problem domain, learn how to model our work as a process, and master how to use the model to tell the story of that process.

Understanding the story of our process is what gives us the context to grasp what to do next to improve our practice.

With bread all sorrows are less.

— Sancho Panza


Don Quixote  by Miguel Cervantes

pattern language

Let's agree to define productivity in terms of throughput. We can debate the meaning of productivity in terms of additional measurements of the business value of delivered work, but as Eliyahu Goldratt pointed out in his critique of the Balanced Scorecard, there is a virtue in simplicity. Throughput doesn’t answer all our questions about business value, but it is a sufficient metric for the context of evaluating the relationship of practices with productivity.