A Reminder to Have a Conversation

Most Americans, if they paid attention at all in civil studies, consider the Bill of Rights to be the foundation of our cherished freedoms. But because it has its own name—the “Bill of Rights”—we may be forgiven for thinking that it is its own document that stands alone, like the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation, alongside the US Constitution. If we really paid attention in civil studies, we know that our cherished “Bill of Rights” is the name for the first ten amendments to the US Constitution: a kind of errata, extending and enhancing the document.

It is remarkable that the Constitution, the ultimate legal authority in our country, was acknowledged at the time of its writing to be a “living document,” made with self-modifying code. Instructions for changing the Constitution are built right in, in Article V. This is the whole thing:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.

Our founders knew that this document, to stand the test of time, could not stand still. They knew that they didn’t know everything. Fresh in their minds were their own words that spoke of necessary change: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” The Constitution must be flexible to be strong.

The technical “constitution” of the Internet exists as a collection of documents called Requests for Comments, or RFCs. They are not called “final specifications” or “official protocols,” but remain, forever, “Requests for Comments.” They exist in a perpetual state of incompleteness, always expecting one more comment.

There is a way of planning and managing software development work called “Agile.” In the Agile method, each new feature—or part of a feature—is described in a user story, which describes the work to be done through the eyes of the user. (Hence, the name.) Some teams use a format that tells who wants what, and why:

As a system administrator,
I want to be able to select from a list of logged-in users
So that I can notify them of system events.

What’s most important about a user story is that it is not viewed as a fixed or specification, but rather as “a reminder to have a conversation.”

The “product owner,” responsible for and responsive to the needs of the users and the business, studies the users and their needs, then writes user stories to communicate who needs what and why to the developers. But because the Agile process explicitly acknowledges that much can change between the original idea for a feature and its implementation, user stories are best when they are not viewed as rigid specifications, but rather as a reminder that the business team and the development team need to stay in conversation about how best to meet the needs of the user today.

A good user story is reasonably complete, but only reasonably complete. If it is inflexible, it will be like the Constitution without amendments: a good idea that may not still work as conditions change.

In anything we build, we can plant the seeds of change within the endeavor itself. We can and probably should build things—physical spaces or software products or organizations of purpose—so that they can be in conversation with time and circumstances.

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