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Rolling Rocks Downhill: The Agile Business Novel that NEVER mentions Agile. Kindle Edition
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Frankly, the first half of the novel is too long. But the rest – once our hero finally realizes he has no choice but to change paths – is superb: highly engaging, fast paced, and close to the truth of software development and corporate life in almost every way. And it illustrates that changing paths can be done in a step-by-step way.
Other tech novels in the genre worth reading: Goldratt’s “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” (Goldratt, who wrote for manufacturing, is a major source for Clarke Ching), Steve Bockman’s “Predictability: A simple approach to creating reliable project schedules by Steve Bockman (2013-02-14)”, Tom DeMarco’s “The Deadline: A Novel about Project Management”, and the DevOps focused “The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win”.
In this business-novel he teaches us the principles of Goldratt's Theory of Constraints by taking us on a journey with a set of endearing characters caught in a crisis. We understand their predicament, we walk hand-in-hand with them as they learn the ideas that enable them to save themselves from crisis, and at the end we're left with the feeling that, if placed in a similar position, we'd be able to avert the crisis.
Beyond that, we learn that these tools aren't just to be used to dig ourselves out of holes, they're general purpose thinking processes that help us improve teams, projects an organisations in any state of health: good, bad or mediocre. Overall, the reader is left with a pervasive and energizing sense of "I know what I need to do, how, and why, to make things better".
Ching gets around the resistance to agile by simply giving the characters no choice, he sets up an impossible project then keeps making things worse. This helps explain that almost complete lack of questioning of the techniques that are proposed. It was a little sleight of hand that I can understand. It's not a bad message. You can't impose Agile. People have to be ready for it, open to it. To accelerate that journey for a book, you make them desperate.
Another slightly unrealistic aspect of the book is that there isn't the initial "dip" in performance/productivity, and the inevitable temptation to revert to old habits. That felt like a pretty glaring plotline to omit since I suspect it's one of the biggest challenges. Given the newness of the principles to all involved and the pressure they were under, it felt a little too easy. Maybe a sequel will cover that ground.
One thing I did like is that the TCQ expert who planted the initial seed, isn't overused. He's sent on vacation for the critical part of the book leaving the team to figure things out on their own. He pops up occasionally in emails asking just the right question or pointing to just the right book but the overriding theme is you have to find your own solutions.
Another noticeable aspect of the story was that the team didn't adopt a methodology, or a framework like Scrum or Kanban. They looked at the problems they had and devised their own solutions. They picked up ideas from each other. This notion of solving your own problems is central to the story and to agile, but Ching doesn't beat you over the head with it, nor does he tell you that Scrum or other practices are bad.
What will this book give you?
If you have no idea what people are talking about when they talk about agile, this book will go a long way to explaining that. If you have already bought into the agile philosophy this book will probably reinforce some of what you know, give you some nice metaphors, and maybe give some pointers to other areas of study.
This book isn't going to win a Booker Prize for fiction, that isn't it's purpose. It's purpose is to keep you turning the pages so you that you learn about agile and the theory of constraints in a broader context. It absolutely succeeds, I really found it hard to put down, despite all the misgivings I had about how neatly things were working out for the characters.
It really is an incredibly easy book to read, and you will come away with a better understanding than you'll get from dipping to to pages of a reference book.
One final note, If you do decide to read the book, try not to think about small batches.
It's a bit application specific, and I think it could be better at explaining the underlying concepts, but you could get those by studying The Goal.
It does have a marvelous mnemonic device to remember the evaporating cloud technique, which I'm immediately adopting.
It's also very funny.