“Please sign here!” Every time I hear that sentence I am worried about what I am doing. And every time I am in the same situation: I have to sign to move forward but I am leaving part of my freedom away. This is true when you get a mortgage or a credit, when you sign a mobile phone contract, an energy supplier contract or actually, every time you sign a contract with somebody more powerful than you are. Even when I sign a letter I wrote myself I might be worried about what the receiver could do with it, provided the receiver is a powerful administration.

Why on earth am I worried about what I am signing off? After all, in almost all cases I even looked forward to get to that point. I did want to buy that expensive stuff that I will pay over 55 years. I did want to get that mobile connection so that I can be disturbed any time or indeed disturb anyone I want any time I want. I did want that life insurance that will protect me and my family. So what’s wrong? The answer is trust. I actually do not trust a single second that the other party will play a fair game. First of all the contracts I am signing are made of 4 to 10 pages of famous small prints. I am asked to sign when I have not read any of these lines. Should I want to do it, the person in front of me would find that outrageous. Should I decide to indeed read it, I would not even understand what I am signing anyway. And believe me, I am not someone giving up in front of words.

But why, are you asking, is he telling us about these signatures that we all know about anyway? I am because as a consultant in software project optimisation, I have been asked again and again how we can reconcile sign-offs and iterative process. This is most of the time the case in organisations coming from a strong waterfall process culture. Before answering that question, I’d like to analyse what it means in a software project to get these sign-offs.

Recently, we were consulting for a rather big public service which had troubles with their software delivery. Basically, they had reached a point where the business side of the projects almost refused to sign any kind of requirements document. They were saying that they did not understand the content well enough. So they were delaying sign-offs as far as they could and incidentally creating a mess in the IT department’s schedule. The business did not want to sign and the technical team refused to start before sign-off. Why? Because, they say, the business people can’t make their mind and always change their view of what is needed. “You can’t work with people like that.” In fact, I would say that this organisation had reached a kind of honesty point where everyone was recognising almost heart fully that the other side was a bunch of crooks. …But were they? Do not forget that they were all part of the same organisation!

My answer to that is of course connected to that dreadful signature that you need to put on that big fat un-understood document. The very reason why you have a need for a signature on a document is because you do not trust the other part for doing their job in the first place. If you do trust the other party, then this document is seen rather differently as a way to state what we both believe is what needs to be done. If things change in time, as we both trust each other, we will re-read that document and surely amend it as needed. That is what I do with trusted partners. Yes we have paperwork done but we all know that this is not what our deal is based on in reality. In fact, if you really try to describe in writing what a proper, honest, healthy deal is based on, you end-up with or a very light document describing in a few lines what the objectives are, or you end-up writing forever all the things you mean, you meant, you will probably mean and you surely would mean otherwise. It is mission impossible! That is why these law firms are making such a huge amount of money for writing a contract. And guess what? Even with these big fat contracts, the same law firms will make even more money in trial to explain the proper interpretation of that contract. It is hopeless! My view is that there is no need for building relationships on these bases. I would even say, it is the top level management responsibility to make sure that internal departments of the same organisation do not apply these hopeless rules to projects supposed to increase the business profitability. It is almost a crime to do so!

And here comes a better approach with the iterative software development processes. I will not explain in detail what this is about because it is almost common knowledge nowadays and it would take longer than this text to do so. In short, for those who have not boarded the train yet, iterative development is based on the idea that you will not wait for the final version of any specific step to do the next one. You will develop the software in small chunks. But mainly: you will deliver the software regularly from as soon as possible. As a result of these deliveries, you are building guess what? Indeed: trust! Where is the signature then? Oh sure you can maintain them if you wish. What about signing there for the piece of work we will deliver next week? Great, let me sign that and see you next week to make sure that I get what I have in mind. It is much more of a gentlemen handshake than a lawyer contract. If by any chance you do not get what you had in mind, you will make it known and make sure that you get it next week. And believe me; nobody in the IT department will be bothered by a change to do on a one week work.

Everywhere we have implemented such approach we have the business getting addicted to this delivery mode and the level of trust is rising like mad! If you want to have a better idea of the in depth reasons why this is happening and why the business if empowered again in front of IT, you can check on my previous article Iteration size and the tap water glass.

Let’s think about IT