Some years ago, while I was an undergrad and for a couple of years after graduation, I participated heavily in two theatre groups, mainly as an actor, but also as a translator, backstage staff, and assistant director.
I loved it all along, absolutely, in great part because of the peculiar kind of teamwork that we had back then: a deep sense of responsibility and trust (I’ll catch you if you fall, and I know you’ll do likewise), of respect for your teammates’ skills, of shared love for what we were doing (we certainly weren’t there for the money), and of unstructured, organic creativity.
As a software developer I tried to find the same type of experience, unsuccessfully. I thought that perhaps software development had some characteristics that made it too difficult to nurture those qualities, or that, perhaps, what we went through at the theatre was a fluke, an unrepeatable and already gone experience.
But it’s not a fluke –you probably have been a part of a team as satisfactory as my theatre troupe, and know what I’m talking about–, and there’s nothing that should keep software from being developed with this sort of team dynamics. I just didn’t know how to make it happen, how to reproduce the environment that would foster such teamwork.
Enter Artful Making. In the Peopleware panel that to me was the highlight of ICSE, Tim Lister recommended this book by Rob Austin and Lee Devin. I can see why: I’ve just finished reading it, and I loved it.
Artful Making builds the case that a number of knowledge work companies are erroneously using an “industrial making” approach to their projects: they try to standardize processes, to shield themselves from uncertainty, and to plan heavily before acting. For many industries, Austin and Devin say, this is the right approach. But for those occupations that share a particular set of characteristics (low cost iterations, need for innovation, and reliable repetition), the industrial making approach is not helpful. For this kind of work –and especially for software development–, Austin and Devin suggest instead an “artful making” approach, one that, strangely enough, is based on their observations of how theatre troupes work. They convincingly claim that the business world has a lot to learn from these artists, they point to cases where this learning is currently happening (in particular, to agile software development), and they distill and explain the four progressive qualities that they deem essential for artful making:
- Release: What you do when you focus and let yourself flow in an activity. It’s controlling by aiming and allowing variation, rather than by restraining. It “contrasts with restraint, the usual method of industrial control”.
- Collaboration: Where “each party, released from vanity, inhibition, and preconceptions, treats the contributions of other parties as material to make with, not as positions to argue with, so that new and unpredictable ideas emerge.”
- Ensemble: What happens when “individual members relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone.”
- Play: Play represents the ongoing, productive interaction between maker and user. “… [The] product of a business should be redefined as the experience of its interaction with customers, an interaction in which both product and customers vary over time.”
Contrary to what I initially expected, the book is not touchy-feely, it’s not new age-y, and it has nothing to sell. Instead, it’s a fantastic look at the similarities between actors and knowledge workers, and a deceptively simple roadmap to make artfully, and to have fun while doing so.