Why You Should Be Concerned When a Consultant Says "That's Orthogonal"

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August 31, 2013 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I have heard several proponents of popular frameworks and methods excuse the lack of some key concept as "well that's orthogonal to the framework/method, but we expect you to put it in if you think it has value." In this case the word "orthogonal" means independent or de-coupled from the framework/method in question.  The challenge with this is threefold:

  • it implies that whatever is being called "orthogonal" is not as important as what is being focused on (this is often not the case)
  • the framework myopia that often ensues has adopters of the framework/method under discussion never try to adopt these "orthogonal" features
  • the fact that the concept is orthogonal to the framework/method does not imply that the concept is orthogonal to the people adopting the framework/method (meaning that ignoring it may have severe adverse consequences)

Let me give an example. In 1940, a modern (for the time) bridge across the Tacoma Narrows was completed and collapsed.  See this remarkable film if you've never seen the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. What's interesting is that, the bridge was both properly designed and properly built according to the methods and standards known at the time. So what happened?  At the time, wind harmonics were considered orthogonal (pun not intended but enjoyed) to bridge design.  The point is, the fact that the designers of the bridge considered wind harmonics to be orthogonal to bridge design, the bridge itself was not orthogonal to the effect of wind harmonics.

In the Lean-Agile-Kanban world, there are several issues that I've heard having teams and attending to flow to be orthogonal to a framework/method.  Well, maybe they are.  But they are certainly not orthogonal to the people doing the work.  Not attending to them is risky.  When a consultant says they are orthogonal to their framework or method, they are really saying "we don't attend to that."  Not attending to critical things should make you concerned.

Al Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives
Silver Partner with Scaled Agile Framework


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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design.


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