The Matter Principle

A man was walking along a beach one day when he spotted a young boy frantically throwing objects into the ocean. As he drew closer to the boy, the man realised that the boy was attempting to save the countless starfish that were regularly washed up on the beach in that area. The man called out to the boy and asked him what he was doing, but the boy ignored him, absorbed as he was in his endeavours. Again, the man called out to him: “Young man, don’t you realise there are starfish all along this beach for miles. You cannot possibly save them all. Why are you trying?” The boy picked up another starfish, threw it out into the ocean and, as it sank into the water, explained: “It matters to that one.”

I first heard that story from a motivational speaker visiting my college in the early 90s (although I notice it has been adapted in many ways for quite a while – I still remember the talk vividly and the moral of the story appeals to me now just as much as then. We cannot solve every problem in the world, but we can make a difference, in whatever small way.

The title for my blog is an awful play on words, referring to something called the Antimatter Principle, created by a guy called Bob ‘flowchainsensei’ Marshall, who I heard speak on the subject at Agile Testing Days last year. Antimatter is apparently the most expensive item known to man, so it is nothing to do with antimatter as such, it is just another way of saying ‘the most important principle’. Marshall’s Antimatter Principle is “attend to folks’ needs”. That is, if you do that, everything else is superfluous.

The purpose of this blog is not to critique Marshall’s principle (I can see it has some positive features), but rather to argue that it is based on an unhelpful assumption, i.e. that there is a single principle (or any other entity) that will solve everything. Such a suggestion has been made on many occasions in human history and, although some might argue that they could have worked if only they had been given the chance, the point is they havent. The quest for the ‘silver bullet’ inevitably leads to false hope and disillusionment.

For me, the only way to stay sane in the face of the messed up world we live in is to focus on doing what you can, not what you cant. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” as the Serenity prayer puts it.

Having said that, I do have sympathy with folks like Bob Marshall who are frustrated with lack of change due to systemic issues. I often feel like that, for example when I work in large organisations seeking to adopt agile delivery practises, but have rigid management hierarchies that severely negate the benefits. I tend towards being a big-picture person, and spend a lot of time trying to encourage organisations to think about the wider cultutral implications of Agile adoption, not merely the mechanics of improving development practises.

Similarly, even when I first heard the starfish story, I felt that there must be some way to deal with the cause of the starfish being washed up on the beach in the first place. Although I got the moral, I still baulked at the idea of the futility of the task, and reasoned there must be a better way. However, some years later, on a family holiday to Australia, I was informed by a canoe instructor, Shane, that there was nothing that could be done to prevent the starfish being washed up, it was just an inevitable fact of nature.

However, Shane also told us that he always threw the starfish back whenever he could, and encouraged others to do the same. As a result, whenever my family found any stranded starfish on beaches subsequently, we also threw them back. In that way, Shane’s small (and relatively futile) actions were multiplied into many small (still relatively futile, but at least more) actions.

This is the way we hope George T&D operates. We describe ourselves as values-led, because we are in business not just to make money, but to contribute something positive to society. We aim to do our bit to make the world a slightly better place, whether that is helping businesses to adopt Agile or through various charitable/community development projects. At the same time though, we will make sure people know what we are about. Not because we want everyone to think we are wonderful, but so we will hopefully inspire others to do their little bit too.