A few years back my doctor gave me some somber news. He told me my cholesterol was too high and I must get it lower. It was then that I decided I would make changes to my less than stellar diet. At the time, we had a large family in the house – seven including my father and mother-in-law. My mother-in-law had become the default cook for the family and, while she made some very tasty dishes, it was not exactly healthy fare. I knew that if I were to reach my goal of a better diet I would have to become the new cook for the family.
Originally I thought that my mother-in-law would be upset if I banished her from the kitchen, but if she was, she did a good job of hiding it. That aside, there was only one more small problem – I had not the first clue about how to cook, let alone cook healthy. Obviously I needed help and what does someone do to find help these days? That’s right. I googled it. I found my salvation on a website that not only had thousands of recipes, but each had a rating and comments. I could print out a list of ingredients, create a shopping list, scale recipes to my large family. Most important, I could choose recipes by food type (in my case – healthy foods, low in sodium and cholesterol). Without the internet my plans to eat healthy would have died in infancy.
While I went into this quest as one who was not even a functional cook, I was able to read and follow directions well enough to create some very tasty dishes that the family enjoyed. The plan paid off. My cholesterol and blood pressure went down, as well as other family members including my mother and father-in-law. Over time I even became a functional cook. However, I never became a chef (and to this day I am still not).
The difference between a cook and a chef can be summed up in conversations I would have from time to time with my wife. She would ask, “Can you make this dish without this or that? Or maybe substitute this with this.” My response would always be the same. “Sorry honey. I wish I could help you, but I am not sure what this ingredient does and not sure what would happen if I don’t follow the directions to the letter.” I was a cook. What she was looking for was a chef; someone who had a deep culinary knowledge that would allow them to not only modify recipes, but someone with the ability to create new dishes from scratch or show creativity with existing ingredients. I could not do this. I got very good at the motions and following a recipe, but I never cultured a deeper understanding of the why behind the individuals ingredients and actions. I could not “see the big picture.”
I am often reminded of the difference between a cook and a chef in my agile practice. I have used this story numerous times with developers to explain agile development practices. Like me, it seems that some developers will always be cooks. While there are some who don’t know the difference, I have even run into some that prefer to be cooks instead of chefs. Not that there is anything wrong with choosing to be a cook, but it helps when one is aware of the choice and makes a conscious decision to be one.
I was reminded of this again recently when I went to a talk on scaling agile. The presentation was supposed to last about an hour, but ran long because of the numerous questions and comments from the crowd. It wasn’t until the following day when I was explaining the presentation to a group I was coaching that I realized why the presentation was peculiarly long. The crowd at the presentation were novices with respect to this scaling model and the questions they asked were ones that we would expect cooks to ask. They wanted to know a prescriptive recipe for scaling and wondered how it could be applied to their unique circumstances. Without having the deeper knowledge of a chef, the scaling model recipe didn’t make a great deal of sense to the crowd.
Of course, this phenomenon has been observed and named the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition. In this model, “cooks” could best be mapped to the “Novice”, “Advanced Beginner” and maybe even the “Competent” categories while “chefs” are referred to by the name of “Proficient” and “Expert”. The Dreyfus Model helps us understand one of the biggest problems facing Agile scaling models today. The scaling models I have some experience with present the world with software development recipes. Unfortunately, the majority of individuals being presented these recipes are cooks (“novices”) and not chefs (“experts”). While one can function adequately as a cook by merely following directions, software development is much too complex. People trying to do Agile scaling are too new to scaling concepts to make successful adaptations should their “ingredients” not match exactly with the Agile scaling “recipe”.
There are a number of Agile scaling models including SAFe, LESS, Nexus, DAD. Since there appears to be quite a bit of money in creating scaling recipes, training people on the recipes and certifying that people have been given and understand the recipes, I expect to see many more in the coming years. Each scaling model claims to have many companies successful in using their model. I am dubious because I have seen overlap among the companies claimed to be successes with the different scaling models (“the usual cast of characters” a person said to me once). I would guess the companies where success is claimed are merely the ones where people paid for the training and certification. What actually happens vis-à-vis scaling models is probably far from what the proponents claim. I expect over time many of these scaling models will be spectacularly unsuccessful. It may be the luminaries of agile have created the perfect scaling “recipe”, but there are too many cooks and not enough chefs for lasting success.