Changing people or changing rules

In my previous post I made an open statement which I’d like to clarify a bit further:

(…) when the rules don’t work for people, the rules should be changed, not the people.

This leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation of what was actually meant, and TIm Hoffman pointed that out nicely with the following questioning in a comment:

I wonder when the rule is important enough to change the people though. For instance [, if your] development process is oriented to TDD and people don’t write the tests or do the job poorly will you change them then?

This is indeed a nice scenario to explore the idea. If it happens at some point that a team claims to be using TDD, but if in practice no developer actually writes tests first, the rules are clearly not working. If everyone in the team hates doing TDD, enforcing it most probably won’t show its intended benefits, and that was the heart of my comment. You can’t simply keep the rule as is if no one follows it, unless you don’t really care about the outcome of the rule.

One interesting point, though, is that when you have a high level of influence over the environment in which people are, it may be possible to tweak the rules or the processes to adapt to reality, and tweaking the processes may change the way that people feel about the rules as a consequence (arguably, changing people as a side effect).

As a more concrete example, if I found myself in the described scenario, I’d try to understand why TDD is not working, and would try to discuss with the team to see how we should change the process so that it starts to work for us somehow. Maybe what would be needed is more discussion to show the value of TDD, and perhaps some pair programming with people that do TDD very well so that the joy of doing it becomes more visible.

In either case, I wouldn’t be simply asking people “Everyone has to do TDD from now on!“, I’d be tweaking the process so that it feels better and more natural to people. Then, if nothing similar works either, well, let’s change the rule. I’d try to use more conventional unit testing or some other system which people do follow more naturally and that presents similar benefits.

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