Better balls can't top old balls


—Andy Hunt

12/12/2006
Published in Andy's Blog

Seems the NBA fell into a classic problem, one very familiar to the software development world.

They spent some millions of dollars perfecting a new basketball, made from a micro-fiber composite that was demonstrated to be superior to the old leather balls the league had used for some 60 seasons.

But, as with many projects, the new design was not tested by actual users, and did not get management approval or buy-in. The players even filed a labor grievience to get their old balls back.

According to USA Today, there’s a scramble on to get the old balls back into circulation for January 1.

The players aren’t just acting like Luddites—resisiting change. The touch, feel, and muscle memory of the leather balls have been firmly ingrained in their practice and performance at the expert level. You don’t toss that aside lightly.

It’s like the tired phrase “best practice.” I’ve always wondered, “best for who?” Best when? Under what circumstances? IN WHAT CONTEXT?

In my Refactoring Your Wetware talk I warn about the dangers of decontextualized objectivity. That is, taking something out of context and studying it objectively. Context is everything, and the appreciation of context is one of the key traits of the expert in any field.

Clearly the NBA “studied” the new microfiber balls in some sort of sterile laboratory setting, measuring the bounce, the consistency, etc. But apparently they did not test with real players, under real conditions, in the real context in which it would be used.

That’s why we like Tracer Bullet style development. You get to try out parts of the program under development under real conditions; much closer to the real context than just a lab with white coats.

Because a better ball in the lab ain’t necessarily a better ball on the court.

Thanks to Greg Ostravich for passing this on.

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