Development Methodologies and Jeet Kune Do

[ This post was written in June of 2006 and never finished.    After 2,000 words I didn’t know how to end it.    It still seems relevant today though with all this DevOps stuff going on – I found it while browsing old drafts ]

I was reading an article over on called Universal Development Process and it got me thinking about how ineffective most software development methodologies are and why they limit the creativity and productivity of teams.

Over the last year and a half or so, I’ve spent a lot of time in a fairly large company talking about innovation. The dictionary defines innovation as “the act of introducing something new”. I can’t remember where I read it, but I found a better definition of innovation somewhere that more accurately expresses what it is. This definition states that innovation is rarely something new, but is actually a “new application of existing ideas from one industry or problem area to a new industry or problem area”.

In this article, I am attempting to apply existing ideas from the philosophy of Bruce Lee’s Jeet-Kune-Do to the problem area of software development. Hopefully, you find some value in the exercise. I find a lot of value in thinking about it.


Development methodologies have been around for as long as I can remember. Each new “fad” promises better results and more productivity for teams using them. Personally, I have never been a part of a team that has implemented “a methodology” that did not run into problems that they could solve within the context of the methodology.

Unfortunately, managers and business users within a software organization are always looking for a “silver bullet” that will take what is ultimately a creative process and turn it into production-like processes that are repeatable and predictable. The basic assumption from these groups is that software development should be like making cars. The problem with this assumption is that each software project is different — and more importantly, each development team is different and unique in and of itself.

Fortunately for these groups, there are other groups of people that create and market “methodologies” that purport to create this productionized process for software development. The idea in most of these implementations are that there are specific things one can do to control the creative process of software development and make it predictable and repeatable.

These complete tool sets are marketed and bought by big businesses and forced on the development teams in order to help them be more productive. More times than not, teams feel limited by the tools, and options that are outside the process cannot be considered within the context of a software process.

Through much of my adult life, I have always enjoyed the writing of Bruce Lee. Over the years I have compared his ideas around “classical forms” of martial arts to the idea of software development and “methodologies”. This article is meant to draw some correlations and spur some thought among the IT managers in the industry to perhaps look at software development a little differently, as a creative, fluid process rather than something completely structured and rigid.

I’d like to take a few topics and talk about how Bruce approached them in the formation of Jeet-Kune-Do, and how these ideas could possibly translate into the “art” of software development and why individual software development methodologies, or styles, may not, in and of themselves, deliver the expected results that were marketed.

The Limited Vocabulary of Methodologies

When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. The classical man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow — you are not understanding yourself.

— Bruce Lee

Bruce was constantly frustrated with the “static” nature of martial arts styles. His argument, in a nutshell, was that a specific style taught you a specific way of doing things and that with the limited vocabulary dictated by a particular style, you only had a set number of responses to what is normally a dynamic, ever changing, and most likely random chain of events based on the moment.

Perhaps Bruce could say it better:

Too much horsing around with unrealistic stances and classic forms and rituals is just too artificial and mechanical, and doesn’t really prepare the student for actual combat. A guy could get clobbered while getting into this classical mess. Classical methods like these, which I consider a form of paralysis, only solidify and constrain what was once fluid. Their practitioners are merely blindly rehearsing routines and stunts that will lead nowhere.

I believe that the only way to teach anyone proper self-defence is to approach each individual personally. Each one of us is different and each one of us should be taught the correct form. By correct form I mean the most useful techniques the person is inclined toward. Find his ability and then develop these techniques. I don’t think it is important whether a side kick is performed with the heel higher than the toes, as long as the fundamental principle is not violated. Most classical martial arts training is a mere imitative repetition – a product – and individuality is lost.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style.

— Bruce Lee

“Classical” methodologies have the same effect as Bruce felt “classicial styles” had. Talk to any team (better yet, ask the management team) and you will find that they develop software by “using RUP”, “being an XP team”, or “using SCRUM” rather than using a set of tools to develop software. The assumption by those above the team in implementing the methodology is that if you aren’t doing whats prescribed, your doing it wrong.

Unfortunately, when using a particular set of tools described as “the way”, one often winds up in situations in which they did not expect and have to find within the methodology the right solution to use, rather than doing what works to get the problem out of the way and get the project moving again. There is also a much greater chance that the team is put into a situation in which some “expert” will tell them that they “did it wrong” because they didn’t do it in accordance with the selected methodology. I’ve seen so much time wasted to figure out the “right” way to do something when everyone already knew what needed to be done, they just had to find a way that it would “fit” into the “official” structure of the team or organization.

The overarching structure of a particular methodology limits the possibilities a team has to act in a way that isn’t in accordance with the structure.

Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.

— Bruce Lee

I believe that each development “methodology” is a collection of tools that could be valuable within a particular context. I do not believe that they are all or nothing. It is essential that you, as Bruce would say, “absorb what is useful, discard the rest, and add what is uniquely your own”.

Learning the Basic Tools Enough to Improvise

Within software development, we have a set of tools that we use in order to get our work done. Be it source control, languages, refactoring, test first development, etc, there are intricacies of the tools that we need to know in order to be able to improvise when situations arise that we are not expecting. Rarely, if ever, can we stick to one way of doing things on a project, so unencumbered knowledge of the basic tools are essential.

Again, Bruce addresses this within the philosophy of Jeet-Kune-Do:

I refer to my hands, feet and body as the tools of the trade. The hands and feet must be sharpened and improved daily to be efficient.

It is true that the mental aspect of kung-fu is the desired end; however, to achieve this end, technical skill must come first.

The techniques, though they play an important role in the early stage, should not be too restrictive, complex or mechanical. If we cling to them, we will become bound by their limitation. Remember, you are expressing the technique, and not doing Technique number two, Stance three, Section four?

Practice all movements slow and fast, soft and hard; the effectiveness of Jeet Kune-Do depends on split-second timing and reflexive action, which can be achieved only through repetitious practice.

When performing the movements, always use your imagination. Picture your adversary attacking, and use Jeet Kune-Do techniques in response to this imagined attack. As these techniques become more innate, new meaning will begin to emerge and better techniques can be formulated.

— Bruce Lee

Most of the time when implementing a “methodology”, more focus is put on the structure of the project than learning the tools around the methodology enough to be able to improvise. I like to focus my teams on becoming intimate with the basic tools that they need in order to work effectively.

Perhaps a practical example would help. We implemented Subversion as our version control tool in May of 2004, the day it went to version 1.0 – I would have had a hard time justifying a beta tool to the “enterprise architects“. During the transition to Subversion, I made the rule for the group that no GUI’s would be used with source control. Thats right, no Tortoise SVN, no Rapid SVN, nothing. The team was only allowed to use the command line tool. There was some “resistance” to this idea and to this day I’m not sure that I’ve ever really been able to communicate effectively why I made this rule. It all boils down to the ability to improvise.

I believe that in order to improvise, you have to have intimate knowledge of the tools at your disposal. This intimate knowledge of the capabilities of the core tool would enable each individual team member to aggregate a body of knowledge, internalize it, and be able to improvise when the unexpected occurred. This is one of the reasons why, as I’ve pointed out to my team members a number of times, that I have spent countless hours over my career retyping commands and / or code fragments rather than cutting and pasting – and why I still use emacs rather than the latest cool IDE. When it all comes down to it, repetition is the mother of skill. I believe that this is what Bruce was talking about in the above quote.

For our team, a GUI tool would have tied them to a fixed set of capabilities limited by someone elses interpretation of how the tool worked, rather than the true form of the tool and its capabilities.

Over time, I felt that this intimate knowledge of how the tool worked would enable the team members to generalize the concepts enough that they would be able to find new ways of doing things – that “new meaning will begin to emerge and better techniques can be formulated”. How the team used the tool was up to them, but I wanted them to use the tool in the purest form in order to learn it rather than a filtered version of it.

All or Nothing

When people talk about fighting schools they say that Kung Fu, or Karate, or this other style is the best. That is silly, and the problem becomes that the fighting style then becomes set in stone with no growth, and no adaptation, because what works well with me might not work for you.

— Bruce Lee

I was in a training class recently in which the instructor said “If you are not doing Pair Programming, you are not agile”. His assertion was that you have to use all the tools in the XP “methodology” in order to call yourself an agile team — that you cannot pick and choose the tools that work for the individual teams, but have to take the set as it is and use all parts.

I don’t necessarily agree. Pair programming works in many instances, but I have a hard time believing that this is the only way to do knowledge transfer and to create solid software. If it were, there wouldn’t be such successful distributed teams such as the Subversion Project or many of the different Linux teams (or the kernel team itself). Communication can be heightened without having people sitting next to each other watching or being watched by someone else. Bottom line is, depending on the individual, some might not be comfortable with this tool, and I think thats OK.

Its sad. Management teams overall want production line type processes to create software. They want to be able to predict schedules and everything that could possibly go wrong up front – and they want their predictions to be accurate. While most methodologies do not promise “precognition”, the interpretation by management teams most of the time is that precognition comes with the methodology they are buying. After all, why would they be doing something with a name if they are, more than likely, not going to better off in these areas by doing so?

[ This is where I ended.   After 2000 words I guess I was tired ]