The blueprint fallacy

When it comes to consulting, I notice three kinds of solutions out in the field: the blueprinters, and the emergenters, and the ones that float between these two worlds). Dealing with blueprint solutions is a fallacy in my point of view. Let’s take a closer look on each of these three patterns I saw, and see what’s going on.

The Blueprinter

Blueprint solutions provide a common set of practices. There are many blueprint solutions to various problems out there. Methodologies are one example. Best Practice collections in its various forms are another. I avoid to name any, hoping you will recognize one if you see them in the field on your own.

The bottom line is this: do what we recommend, and you will be fine. In my experience companies buy blueprint solutions for a reason. That reason is safety. Safety that a set of practices will help them. Also since the consultants coming with the blueprints are familiar with the solution, they know how to implement them in our company.

Here is what I consider wrong with blueprint solutions. The safety that companies buy with the blueprint solutions is a false safety. It’s actually a case of shallow agreement when it comes to safety. Safety really means in this context that someone buying the solution does not want to take on any risk, especially not the risk of loosing his or her position.

Second, if the implementation fails, what do you think will be the reason? Of course, “ will not work in our company.” “We can’t do X.” Years as a swimming trainer have taught me that “X doesn’t work” really means “I don’t know how X works in my context.” That is also true for various testing practices, development practices, and agile practices.

For the third point, here is a story slightly related to the same effect. In a city traffic measures were taken. On a particular road, there were many accidents caused by speeders. The city mayor ordered a set of speeding controls. Skip forward two years, another traffic measure is taken. The amount of accidents on that road went up. But now the city’s budgets rely on the speeding fines from the speeding control. So, guess what will happen? Will the speeding control be removed?

I think this is the worst thing about blueprints. Soon many contractors and consultants will become more and more reliant on the solution since they sell it. Their whole business model relies on that blueprint. Guess how open these folks will be to critique on their solution?

The blueprinters – or solution-problemers as students from Jerry Weinberg call them – are the worst tribe that happened to our industry. These come in many forms, and I will not name any of them to protect the guilty. Often these folks are narrow-minded, unable to unlearn things that don’t work, and have a hard time fiddling with changes. That’s bad, and I think it’s holding our industry back since decades. But the brain of an engineer seems to look for clear, binary solutions, and that’s why folks will continue to give in to that demand.

The Emergenters

How to solve this? Then there are the “it depends”, and “what works on a web startup won’t work on the International Space Station” kind of folks. These folks are hard to deal with. They critique a lot of things when you hire them, but you will have a hard time receiving a clear answer to address your safety concerns.

Most of the time, these folks come in, try one thing, another, then maybe a third, and eventually you throw them out since they don’t implement something that’s helping you. Or is not helping enough. Or you don’t like that guy.

I think that’s a bit unfortunate – for two reasons. First, you didn’t receive for your money what you wanted to have. Your problem is not solved, and you wasted a couple of money on that. That’s bad. Second, the consultant in question properly didn’t do a good job of setting the psychological contract with you. That’s why you had to mistrust his solution, and he didn’t negotiate the steps with you. Of course usually these folks are a bit reluctant to learning from that experience since they didn’t receive the feedback necessary to learn.

The emergenters come up with emergent solutions. They are at times less directive. All depends on something, and nothing gets done, eventually. That’s tragic. Emergent practices need a starting point. If you don’t get to that starting point, you can’t learn, you can’t emerge from that.

The Hybrids

Then there are the hybrids. These folks float between the two worlds. They take one idea from the blueprint world, and try to apply them. Maybe they realize that the approach fails, and they need emergent practices.

In my experience these folks have a high potential – for good and for bad. The bad thing is to take all the habits from the blueprint that result in the least change in your organization. That usually is a recipe for failure. The reason why other methodologies end in better results usually comes from challenging underlying assumptions. If you cherry-pick pieces and practices from these methodologies that are in line with your current approach, you are not getting the benefits out of it that you potentially could.

On the other hand, innovation comes from combining two great ideas. If you can combine things from the blueprint world with things from the emergent world, and make them succeed even more than your current approach, you are way better off. This is the good potential in the hybrids. This approach needs some risk-taking to find a good mix.

What’s worse?

To get anything done in your organization I think you need three different consulting styles. You need the clear direction of the blueprinters to get anything done. You also need the learning cycle from the emergenters to see what’s working for you, and what is not. Finally, you need hybrids to cherry-pick things, and challenge assumptions of the blueprinters.

I have seen adoptions with clear direction that were a failure when the consultant was in the company. Usually these improved dramatically when narrow-mindedness went out, and opened the thoughts for emergent practices.

That doesn’t mean that I would recommend blueprinters.

If you can’t hire three consultants in the different styles mentioned, I think you should look for track records of hybrids. Good hybrids will give you practical solutions, clear direction when you need them, and emergence when you something is not working in your context.

But how do you find these? That’s the harder question, and it takes some effort to filter the good ones from the bad ones. Unfortunately there is no blueprint solution for that. Look for recommendations. And inspect and adapt as you go.

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One thought on “The blueprint fallacy”

  1. Hello Markus,

    I read some blogs whose authors are consultants in software enginerring and/or testing. Sometimes new and innovative thoughts are shared via posts, but I often think there’s something missing. I will try formulating my thoughts that make me think something is missing.
    You describe the task of a consultant as organizational problem solving. An organization is a highly social system with a current culture, rules, ways of thinking and communication und much more. How do you handle social and psychological issues regarding the organization that hires you? How do you interpret your task as consultant reflecting interventions for an organization?
    Blueprinters, emergenters, hybrids – I miss the human factor in the examinations mentioned first.

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