Why you should bite that silver bullet

The more I read about human psychology, the more I realize we are more automatic and instinctual than we care to admit. Yet, we like to believe that we are much more intellectually evolved than our fellow species. We have a dangerous level of overconfidence in our own abilities to be rational. You may be wondering how human psychology relates to the title of this post? It is at the heart of why silver bullet-ism is alive and well. We just can’t help ourselves due to our self-preservatory automatic programming. Most of this self-preservation is now quite unnecessary in our modern world, yet it remains on evolution’s to-do list to significantly update this programming.

I wonder where s/he got the jeans from?


For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “silver bullet” is defined as a solution that is perceived to be complete and fail-safe on very first blush. No further analysis of the solution’s fit to the requirements of the problem is necessary. According to my brief research, the term comes from the notion that a bullet made of silver is necessary to kill a werewolf. Self-preservation indeed!

As an aside, everyone must read “Thinking Fast And Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It is a life-changing read about why we do the crazy things we do without “thinking”. Kahneman describes 2 characters in the mind: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is on all the time and constantly provides effortless, mostly subconscious, experiential suggestions to System 2. System 2 must be consciously activated and requires effort to operate. System 2 is responsible for accepting or rejecting System 1′s suggestions. If a System 1 suggestion is rejected, System 2 must be mobilized and effort must be expended to calculate a decision.

This post is not intended to be a book review, so I’ll get to my point. If silver bullets sound too good to be true, then how do we get trapped by them when our problem is not endangerment at the hand (paw?) of a werewolf? Lazy System 2, that’s how. Decisions are complex in business (see Stacey Matrix below), we have to make a lot of them, and it takes significant System 2 effort and energy to make each one.

The Stacey Matrix illustrates the many business decisions that qualify as complex

Perhaps when we have time, money or both working against us, our defences against a lazy System 2 become depleted. In this moment of weakness, we succumb to the temptation of a solution that looks too good to not be right for our problem. If the solution has worked in the past, we are even more susceptible to its allure. That is when we need to kick our System 2s into gear, no matter how difficult, to analyze our problem and the fit of the potential “silver bullet” solution to it. This vigilance sounds easy to invoke, but it is completely counter to our programming (read the book to discover the many reasons why).

I’ve noted one particularly troubling area of “silver bullet” solution application in my consulting travels: software systems development methodologies. The troubling part is that a methodology oftentimes implies process change so, by implementing a methodology, you are deciding to implement a particular process (or some small set) from the superset of all available processes for your particular application. Recently, I’ve been seeing this phenomenon manifest itself in the choice to implement Agile to manage the software development and/or implementation process.

As much as I’ve drank the Agile Koolaid and believe that it (or some subset of it) is more often than not the right solution, I see Agile perceived as a savior silver bullet solution far too often. After all, it’s new (ish) and everyone who is good at developing software solutions uses it, right? If it works for them and they’re knocking it out of the park, it’ll work for us, right? Well, I’ve got news: You’re not them!

The creators of The Agile Manifesto would cringe at the thought of Agile as a silver bullet. After all, The Manifesto describes Agile as a set of principles; a mindset. There is not even a hint of prescription to The Manifesto. It is supposed to be implemented in concert with a measurable continuous improvement process so that the end result is absolutely and uniquely yours. That is the only way to get results. Aside: Is there an end result when a continuous improvement process is implemented? … food for another post.

Who knows, if you do it right, you may tempt someone else to adopt your Agile implementation flavour as their silver bullet.