What scurvy and Agile have in common

I am constantly being reminded that many of the ideas that we treat as current, modern or fashionable are in fact fairly dated and have been around for quite a while. Somehow we just didn’t discover or apply them.

My latest example comes from the “Project Retrospectives” book by Norman Kerth. In the section about “Develop a Time Line” exercise there is a “True story” of some really nice insights a team generated from their timeline as presented on the following two posters:

Don’t Do Again


Project Retrospectives - Dont Do Again

Do Differently This Time

Project Retrospectives - Do Differently

Note that this is from a book published in 2001 when the Agile Manifesto was just being crafted and the mentioned retrospective itself I suspect was run some time before that.

Eleven years later most software development teams I can think of would still benefit substantially from adopting this set of recommendations. It’s not that they are novel, they certainly are not, neither that they are revolutionary. It’s just that changing our habits and our culture takes a long time.

We could try and estimate how much longer it will take before most teams will no longer rediscover the same problems in their retrospectives. Or, if we follow the lessons from Jim Benson’s book “Why Plans Fail”, we could try to find previous examples of how long it took before a valuable piece of knowledge became commonly accepted.

A rough but poignant story about scurvy in Bill Bryson’s “At Home” might shed some light here. Scurvy, it turns out (perhaps a bit like large batches and lack of feedback in software), has been one of the main problems for sailors for centuries.

Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically it killed about half the crew on any long voyage. Various desperate expedients were tried. Vasco da Gama on a cruise to India and back encouraged his men to rinse their mouths with urine, which did nothing for their scurvy and can’t have done much for their spirits either. Sometimes the toll was truly shocking. On a three-year voyage in the 1740s, a British naval expedition under the command of Commodore George Anson lost 1,400 men out of 2,000 who sailed. Four were killed by enemy action; virtually all the rest died of scurvy.

Eventually an answer was found and a cure became available but it took another generation before the idea became widely adopted.

It fell to the great Captain James Cook to get matters on to the right course. On his circumnavigation of the globe in 1768–71, Captain Cook packed a range of antiscorbutics to experiment on, including thirty gallons of carrot marmalade and a hundred pounds of sauerkraut for every crew member. Not one person died from scurvy on his voyage – a miracle that made him as much a national hero as his discovery of Australia or any of his other many achievements on that epic undertaking. The Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific institution, was so impressed that it awarded him the Copley Medal, its highest distinction. The British navy itself was not so quick, alas. In the face of all the evidence, it prevaricated for another generation before finally providing citrus juice to sailors as a matter of routine.

So perhaps indeed we need to wait another generation before small batches, incremental delivery and customer collaboration become widely adopted.

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