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Everything I Know About Software Development I Learned from Elephants

The Swiss Army Knife of the Animal Kingdom

Elephant-2Last week, I talked about the importance of introducing the elephants in the room.  So now that we have the elephant in the room, let’s examine it and see what we can learn from elephant behavior and how we can apply it to software development. The irony of the “elephant in the room” metaphor is that it suggests that elephants are these large, bulky creatures that are imposing and not dynamic. In fact, elephants are one of the most versatile mammals on this planet. The elephant’s trunk is used to tear up food, so the elephant can digest it. It is a hand that can grasp objects, a means of drinking without having to bend over, and a way of  spraying mud on themselves to protect their skin from the sun. It is even used as a tool for  social interactions, to enhance their highly developed sense of smell, and to defend themselves from predators.

To deliver software predictably, we need to become dynamic, adaptable creatures as well. As the speed of technology gets faster and faster, we’re going to have to give up the idea of just doing one or two things really, really well. We’ll have to be like the elephants’ trunk. We have to know the foundation of coding, but not be married to any single language. We’ll need to understand the best practices of project management, but be flexible in our methodology and apply the best methodology to the best practice. We will need to master requirements facilitation, but have many different tools to gather requirements and to custom fit the requirements process to the appropriate projects.


Even We Can Become Extinct

If we are rigid and only do things one way, technology will pass us by and we’ll become extinct. However, if we are adaptable with our tools, practices, and methodologies, we’ll continue to evolve to meet the demands of business using the best that current technology has to offer.

In the past, the slower speed of technology may have meant that a method and tool would be useful for many years. In the fast pace of technology today, it is never the case that we can say that any idea, method, or tool works every time. We need to be constantly transforming ourselves, our ideas, methods and  tools to confront new challenges.

We may come to find more and more that projects are changed or canceled once we have gained momentum. Perhaps what made business sense when we started the project no longer makes sense due to new technology which has changed the marketplace. Rather than letting this disturb our equilibrium, we should begin to develop habits that allow us to shift rapidly and be adaptable to such change. Those in technology who can rapidly adapt will excel in tomorrow’s marketplace.

Being flexible and adaptable isn’t easy. It requires us to constantly let go of things that we know as true. Something may have worked for us before, but it may not work now. Or perhaps we have a perfect tool in mind for the job, but our client has a tool they like more. We have to let go of what has worked in the past for what it will take to accomplish the challenge before us.


And Maybe Dumbo Wasn’t That Far Off Base

One last thing we can learn from elephants is to use our big ears. Disney’s portrayal of Dumbo, the elephant with ears big as wings, wasn’t that far off base: Elephants have huge ears and an exceptional power of hearing.

As a predictable partner, we also need to always be using our ears. Not just to listen to what our clients are saying, but to really understand the meaning of what they are saying.

We can do this by maintaining a curiosity with our clients and what unique strengths and issues they have. Listening is a good first step, but when we are curious about our clients’ strengths and issues, then we have motivation to not just hear, but to understand.

Also, using our ears helps ensure that we are speaking the same language. It ensures that we are talking apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Our active listening helps our clients to know that they are being heard.

So next time you pop in the Disney classic about the elephant with the big ears, take note. Just like the underdog elephant who learned to fly, we can also use our ears to help us find success  with our teams and clients.

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Category: For Practitioners, Requirements Definition, Team Dynamics