concocting  extraordinary  teams

October 07, 2009

I am doing my thesis, please answer my survey!

Ah, it happened again today. One of those mildly annoying mailing list posts, you know: "Please help me with my thesis! Just follow this link to fill out a survey on Agile and xxx". I deleted it.

When the second email came, with the title "Agile developers.......... Please help,,,,, I have to complete my thesis ," I was annoyed. The note included "Why IT professionals don't have 5-10 minutes to help a poor student ,my degree is on risk ,now ". I decided to answer her question. I'm posting it here, in addition to my private mailing list reply, hoping it is useful to others, since we all see these requests a few times a year.

Hello, (Grad Student)!

When I saw your first request for responses, I immediately deleted it from my inbox. I'd like to tell you why, by way of supporting your studies.

You seem to have received few replies. Now, most of the people on this particular mailing list are westerners and Agilists, and I wonder if there might be some cultural differences at play here. I'd like to tell you a bit about how we tend to operate, perhaps it will be helpful to you.

Before asking people to spend time helping me, it's considered polite that I should first build some relationships. At very least, introduce myself, who I am, my interest in joining the group. Even better: join some conversations. Find out what we think of your subject. Coming in as a stranger and asking or begging people to help you with your homework is considered by many to be, at best, a nuisance.

I notice that you did include a paragraph stating your objectives and how you will use the information. There's potentially another cultural problem there, which you may not have considered. You are talking to people whose mantra includes "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation." (see For some of us, the terms "offshore" and "Agile" clash, because we have seen too many projects with half a team in India (for example) and half a team in the US, trying to do Agile, and it makes our brains hurt. Sure, it can be done, but it's fraught with problems and some (many?) of us recommend against it.

So, when you mention "offshore" you hit a nerve that made me immediately think: "the topic is an oxymoron" and I deleted the email. However: looking at it again, it's entirely possible that what you meant was an offshore company doing work for a client in another place (the whole team is offshore). This is a scenario I still don't like, but it is workable, and not so offensive to my Agile values. Is this what you meant? Had you started a conversation around this topic, this subtlety might have come out, changing my response.

Beyond culture, there's also the issue that those of us active on Agile lists have seen many of these kinds of requests. The first few times I went to investigate, and found the questions poorly formulated, indicating no understanding of Agile, or else formulated in a way that I could not see how my answers would in any way provide data that would be useful to our community. (For example, there's no option for position = dedicated Agile Coach/ScrumMaster; it requires my company name, which I won't give out; and how can simply "select a success rate" be meaningfully aggregated, with no context?). Some are simply too long! Those of us with the information you need are also, typically, *very* busy and careful how we spend our time.

Now I just ignore such requests. Which makes me sad, as I like to support people doing good work to further Agile, but so far my experience says that answering surveys isn't the way to do it, as Agile success/failure is highly context dependent, which seems difficult to capture in a short survey.

I invite you read what Scott Ambler wrote about surveys, including why so many of us don't answer them. He said "...This wouldn't be such a bad thing if the surveys provided value, were designed well, and the results were properly published. However, this often isn't the case and as a result fewer people choose to fill out online surveys because they feel that their time is being wasted (and sadly it often is)." You can read this near the bottom of this page, which also offers hints on creating surveys:

If you feel you could convince us of the value of your survey for increasing healthy Agile adoption, and would like to tell us more about it, please do!

All the best for your studies

PS: My intention is not to embarrass you or chastise you - I hope you see this email as helpful, I put a lot of time into writing it. We are big on learn-and-adapt here, so please do try again if it seems appropriate. (I included some concrete feedback on the survey in question, but have deleted here). By the way: that doesn't look like a 5-minute survey :-)


Deborah Hartmann Preuss
Agile Process Improvement Coach
Team and Personal Effectiveness Coach
Open Space Conference Facilitator

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward."
-- Soren Kierkegaard

Readers: I've made some generalizations here. If you disagree, please join the conversation!


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