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The Anomic Potential of #NoEstimates

I was looking for a bit of clarification on #NoEstimates, and I remembered reading one of Neil Killick’s posts about it that I thought would be relevant. As I was combing through his blog, looking for the post I had in mind, I stumbled across People Need Estimates. What caught my attention was not so much the title of the post, but the image of a red umbrella that went along with the post. That image of the umbrella, along with the title, had me making the connection between #NoEstimates and the work of Peter L. Berger because Berger says that society creates a sacred canopy (or umbrella) to help us relate to the world in a consistent way, and if we are forced to move from under that canopy we face chaos and fear.

I began to get excited as I read the article because, whether he knew it or not, and reference to the umbrella aside, many of the points that Neil was making were resonating with what I remembered reading in Berger’s book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociology of Religion. The thing that struck me the most was that #NoEstimates was not in the nomos of our software development methodologies, and thus contains a great deal of anomic potential, making widespread adoption an uphill battle.

Let me give a little background information before I talk more about nomos and anomic potential. It starts with what Berger termed Externalization, Objectivation, and Internalization.

Berger starts by saying that people feel out of kilter or off balance because the way we relate to our environment changes the environment (he calls this externalization), and so our relationship with the world is always changing. He also says that what people really want is to feel in balance, and to be able to predict how they will need to relate to the world. Society then, says Berger, gives us that feeling of being in balance with the world by making things familiar and providing us with an environment in which we can predict how we will need to relate to the world.

To help us feel like we are in balance society, according to Berger, teaches us to make the same choices in how we relate to the world. Repeatedly. This has the effect of making us think that the world is more objective and less likely to change, and so how we relate to the world will not change (he calls this objectivation). Moreover, it makes us forget that the choices we make as we relate to the world are really choices at all, and we begin to think of them as the way things are supposed to be.

Berger says that society does its job so thoroughly that as we become more socialized we begin to internalize the objective world that it creates (which he calls internalization). So, not only do we come to think that the way things are done is the only way that they could be done, but we start to associate our own identity with the way these things are done. This, in turn, leads us to feel out of balance with the world if we do things any other way than society tells us they should be done.

Society has created an entire, illusory world view, and this is what Berger calls the nomos. Nomos is everything that society has taught us, including everything that we think about the way the world really is and how we relate to that world. It’s everything that keeps us feeling like we are in balance and, just like creating an objective world that we can relate to, society’s job is to make us think that the nomos it provides is objective and unchangeable.

So, when Neil says that people need an umbrella, that’s true from the point of view of the nomos that was created by society. When he says that people don’t need umbrellas, they need a way to stay dry on a rainy day, that’s from a point of view outside of that nomos. But this can threaten the legitimacy of the established nomos. It threatens the stability of the nomos, possibly to the point that the nomos is destroyed.

This is what Berger calls anomy, and things that are outside of the nomos and have the potential to disrupt it have “anomic potential.” Since the nomos provides a sense of stability, comfort, and balance to the world, anything outside of that is seen as chaotic and terrifying; it’s the fear of the unknown, and people use the nomos as a sort of shield against it.

So how does that tie in with #NoEstimates? As I said above, it’s fear of the unknown. Estimates are a part of the nomos created by the “society” of software development. So, even though estimates can be useful at times, the current nomos says that we are to use estimates to get a price and a date for developing software. To obtain a price or date without using an estimate is outside of the nomos. #NoEstimates is scary; it’s anomy, and represents a certain amount of anomic potential.

And that’s why #NoEstimates faces an uphill battle; it’s a social change, and social change is hard because you really have to change the nomos before you can realize the change in society. It’s not that people don’t think it’s a good idea or that they can’t do it; everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, has the ability to act independently of the nomos. Instead, it’s more a fear that doing so will highlight the sense of being out of balance with the world, and we don’t like that.

I suspect that’s also a big factor as to why Woody Zuill says in his blog post on Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Agility that few people are willing to give an outright answer when he asks them "if you found estimates bring no value – what would you do?" It’s like looking death in the face. It’s unsettling because it represents so much anomic potential, and so we prefer not to do it.

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