Fusion dining: Brinkerhoff, Maslow and software development!

Posted by Steve Lay

A friend of mine recently attended a session at the The Agile Testing & BDD eXchange 2012 in London and, as a result, brought an interesting fusion of ideas to my attention.

I went online to watch Gojko Adzic and Dan North talking about Impact Mapping, a strategic planning technique, and I was intrigued to hear them discuss Brinkerhoff’s work on improving the effectiveness of training programmes.

Long-time readers of this blog may be familiar with Brinkerhoff’s work already. John Kleeman wrote a two-part post about Brinkerhoff’s Success Case Method back in 2010. For Gojko though, it seems that Brinkerhoff’s earlier work, “The Learning Alliance: Systems Thinking in Human Resource Development” has been the key influence. It is this work that first defines the Impact Mapping approach. There is a nice summary of the concept in this synopsis of Brinkerhoff and Apking’s work High Impact Learning.

Gojko Adzic is someone who applies these ideas to the world of software development, a field that is very close to my heart! At Questionmark we use agile software development techniques through our adoption of the scrum process. This means we use tools like user stories, sprints and the product backlog to help us develop our products and services. In the talk about Impact Mapping, Gojko Adzic makes a charming analogy between software development and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can read about it in detail on Wikipedia but for me, Douglas Adams summarised the idea perfectly:

“The history of every major galactic civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question “How can we eat?” the second by “Why do we eat?” and the third by “Where shall we have lunch?”

To continue this analogy, Gojko’s argument runs something like this: of course we need to become proficient at finding food but there comes a time when continually asking people if they are still hungry is missing the point, and we should be asking whether or not they enjoyed their meal. Put another way, businesses also have a hierarchy of needs and once we move beyond basic proficiency in our business processes we need to move up to measuring the impact at higher levels.

While Gojko Adzic and Dan North have some suggestions for how to do this in the world of software development it did bring me back to Brinkerhoff’s work and how this advice can be applied more generally, for example, by adopting techniques like the Success Case Method for identifying high impact training programmes.

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