Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The alibi of creativity

One of the most intriguing parts of the discussion, that was part of my speech in IAD2008, was a question (interestingly asked by one of the few non-developers) regarding possible negative effects of time-boxing (especially in the form of “pomodoro”) on a creative activity such as developing software.

I quickly dropped my opinion, but I was more interested in making others opinion on the topic emerge. Then I had some tome to think better about it: here are my thoughts.

Coding is not a creative activity

I mean ...there’s creativity involved, but most of the time we are solving problems, in ways which are probably been explored by many others before us. So, basically, coding is a problem solving activity. Creativity slips in when the problem to solve is new, non conventional or pretty hard, or does not strictly involve coding (in this respect, the process might be far more creative than coding). Sometimes we have the luck to deal with applications which are pioneering, but many more times, this is not the case.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be mere follower’s of somebody’s else ideas. But “being creative” or pretending to be, too often has the undesirable side effect of “reinventing the wheel” which is definitely not what we want. Put in another way, “being creative” is often just an excuse for being “too lazy to study”.

Time-boxing does not constrain creativity

Ok, then there are times where the strict time constraints imposed by time-boxed activity, a pairing session, a pomodoro, a day or a sprint, is not enough to allow for the “inspired” solution. As Simone Genini pointed out, “as a manager, you don’t want to wait for developer’s inspiration”. So what you need is a repeatable attitude for this problem solving activity.

Back home I realized that this happens in creative fields too: comics are written on a monthly basis (even if not every author can fit in the schedule), ad campaigns are creative, but organized as time-boxed projects, and so on.

Even in software development, the time-box constraint is less stringent than it might be: if one of your best developers came out with what he consider a sub-optimal solution, something he doesn’t really like. You can be sure that he’ll keep thinking about it, and probably will attack the problem again, once a better solution appeared to him in his dreams or under the shower. Just allowing more coding time to be explicitly allocated to that task won’t probably get the solution any closer.
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