Are your zombie memes killing you?

January 29, 2010 | Comments
Tags: Kanban Meme Principles Scrum XP


Anybody here ever seen a zombie flick? Well then, we all know what a zombie is, but what is a zombie meme? Read on for more.

What is a meme?

For that we need to refer to Richard Dawkins and his book The Selfish Gene. He makes the parallel between a human gene and a unit of culture, which he termed a meme. I’m using culture here in it’s social sense to mean a collection of ideas that shapes our actions that is common to our society. There are a lot of interesting parallels that cross over between the genome based view of biological systems, and the memetic view of cultural systems.

For example, our genes use us to replicate. Therefore genes compete with other genes (in other humans) to ensure their continued replication. One strategy is to introduce characteristics in their host that promote the end result of successful replication. This is the basis of evolution and the continued survival of the most fit organism for their environment.

Memes compete with each other by taking up space in our culture, which essentially means our awareness. They can be as simple as knowing that an iPod can be used to play music, or as complex as a natural language. To be successful a meme must replicate, and there are many strategies to help it do so. The “put wheels on a sledge to make a wagon” meme was successful in creating the automobile industry because it was immediately obvious to anyone looking at a wagon how to build it. The manifestation of the meme (the wagon) was replicated, and so the meme was able to leverage this to create many more copies of itself than the original item. More people know about wagons than own one.

So a zombie meme is…?

One that no longer serves a useful purpose and is simply getting replicated for the sake of it. People simply adopt the zombie meme as “best practice” without question and mindlessly repeat the instructions regardless of how damaging those instructions are.

Examples of this include wasteful business practices:

“Can you print that email for my records?”

“We only take orders by fax, then we type them into our computer system. Hope you’ve got good handwriting.”

“Please read the 50 page guide before filling out this form.”

or software development methodologies:

“Code around it quick, we’ll get the users to test it.”

“We design, code, test and ship. In that order. Once.”

“We don’t use XP, we use Scrum.”

Hang on – did you just have a go at Scrum?

Indirectly, yes. Scrum is the prevailing Agile implementation and there are a lot of excellent reasons to use it. However, simply using a particular methodology without fully understanding what type of development environment it is targeted at is essentially allowing a zombie meme to infiltrate and replicate.

But everyone does Scrum so it must be the best, I hear you mutter. Not necessarily. Consider the article Flaccid Scrum by Martin Fowler where excited project managers pick up on the Scrum process. All is well for a while then the project slams into a brick wall due to overwhelming technical difficulties caused by a legacy code base. This isn’t Scrum’s fault, you need to have good technical practices in place before Scrum will show it’s many advantages. A better choice in this scenario would be XP with all it’s technical recommendations.

Another scenario is that the nature of the work doesn’t lend itself to a constantly changing work load, such as maintenance programming or rapid response to a fickle client. Some changes take a day, others a week or so. Scrum relies on a clear stretch of time to accomplish the work, whereas Kanban provides a much more flexible approach.

And what if the project involves a dual-shore development team, operating in different time zones? It may be better to adopt the Stride approach (PDF), which is based on Scrum but tailored for separated teams.

As I mentioned earlier, memes replicate, but they also mutate leading to a conflation of ideas that can in turn lead to a better fit. Such is the case with a group of people who are now trying to blend Scrum with Kanban to find an even more efficient and flexible development process.

There are interesting times ahead, and not a zombie in sight.

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