Asymmetry of Knowledge and Abuse of Agile Practice

I read an article in Wired yesterday that was modified from a book “Freakonomics“. The article talks about real-estate agents and motivation to push the price of houses they are selling $10,000 higher. The observation was that the $150 incremental gain for the agents (1.5% of $10,000) doesn’t make it worth their holding out an extra three weeks to get the higher number. Their interest is in closing quickly and moving on. They can often convince (through fear) the poor seller of a price that suits their interest. He wasn’t even sure if it was conscious, but it naturally flowed out of the asymetrical knowledge levels between the agent and the client. (I’m reminded here of the saying “A System’s Purpose Is What It Does”.) This asymmetry of knowledge is highly important in the Agile community’s current situation, in that it gives early practitioners the “expert” status, and lots of power to help or hurt the client.


Doctors have a similar motivation. The same article pointed out that statistically, when times are tighter (fewer patients), the proportion of interventions going up (referring here to internists and surgeons). The article isn’t crying conspiracy. Rather, it’s talking about the natural incentives, and the consequences of the asymmetry of knowledge. The doctor knows more, so if they (consciously or subconsciously) recommend more intervention than is necessary, the patient has no way of knowing in order to assess bias and accomodate. Likewise with Real-estate agents.

With alternative practices or new sciences there is an even larger knowledge gap, infact even popular wisdom hasn’t filtered down to the masses in digestible CNN-sound-bite chunks. Also, there is a lot of “naive money” in new fields, as well as a lot of genuine people who are just trying to help. Unfortunately, this means that there are a lot of wolves among the sheep, and they’re wearing the costume of a sheep-dog.

I think, in some ways, that was at the basis of Ken Schwaber’s concern in the Scrum Developer’s list about a scrum practitioner who was not really teaching scrum, but was (in Ken’s paraphrased view) bilking the customer and ego-tripping. Scrum will have a similar dynamic as one finds in, say, alternative health and nutrition, or other early-stage professional arenas. There will be idealists and opportunists and then some who try to apply balance. One has to be very careful of both the idealists and the opportunists. Sometimes they are very hard to spot, and this has a high chance of painting the whole Agile community with the same brush. One of my associates had a very very bad experience with Scrum for that reason. An unscrupulous person who used the position of Scrum Master to aggrandize himself.


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