Post #113

Consulting like Cucumbers

An introduction to Prescott's Pickle Principle

At Test Double, we talk about pickles a lot.

This isn't because our company is home to a niche subculture of foodies, although that would be awesome. It's also not related to Cucumber, Gherkin, or the other tasty-sounding testing tools that I often baffle my search engine with1.

Test Double agents host an internal book club, where we read about software, people, and consulting in order to grow as consultants and as an agency. One of our first books was Secrets of Consulting by Gerald Weinberg, which distills some of his consulting experiences into 102 cutely-named laws, rules, and principles. Of these, there is one in particular that we've circled back to multiple times: Prescott's Pickle Principle, introduced in Chapter 8, which states:

"Cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered."

Or, without the metaphor:

"A small system that tries to change a big system through long and continued contact is more likely to be changed itself."

Prescott's Pickle Principle takes the process in which cucumbers are pickled by exposure to brine, and applies it to consulting. A cucumber cannot "resist" its brine forever; sooner or later, it's going to get pickled. So too, says Weinberg, with a consultant trying to enact change at a client.

Consultants are not vegetables and our work doesn't involve much vinegar2, so what exactly does it mean to be "pickled"? In order to better understand that, let's take a slight detour into the concept of context.

Decision Brine

You might be familiar with Architecture Decision Records, which is a solution for documentating decisions over the life of an agile software project. It chronicles the "why" answers that led to the current state of the system. Each individual record describes a single decision as a combination of several factors:

  • Context: The "state of the world" at the time of the decision.
  • Consequences: The desired and actual outcomes of the decision.
  • Decision: The action taken in an attempt to produce the desired consequences.

Although the ADR system was designed for software projects, I tend to think that companies, teams, and cultures are also products of decisions over time. Employees, regardless of level, don't make decisions in a vacuum; choices and behavior are strongly influenced by context. Each time a decision is made, the outcomes of that decision become part of the next decision context, which essentially creates an entirely new context. Thus is culture born and sustained.

If you were to try to describe your current team's context in a hypothetical ADR, you might struggle to do so comprehensively. Non-technical context is neither simple nor constrained. A decision might be influenced by how your team lead is feeling today, or an article your QA engineer read last week, or an unspoken company policy dating from before you joined the team. Maybe you're not considering option A because two members of your team came from a company that attempted A three years ago and it was a disaster. Maybe you're not considering option B because your manager already announced the team would be proceeding with option C.

Decisions, even technical ones, are rarely as simple as choosing the "best" option. Context adds complexity, even when we don't realize it. Over time, context begins to have a brine-like effect: we start seeing it as unchangeable, and eventually cease to notice its impact on our decisions.

Be the Cucumber

Circling back to Prescott's Pickle Principle, an employee is pickled when her working context exerts more influence on her than she on it. Notice I said "employee", not "consultant". Although Weinberg's book specifically focuses on consultants, he also notes that internal employees are subject to the same forces. So here's the question: is pickling a bad thing?

If we're talking about acclimation to a context, there's an argument to be made that some pickling is beneficial. For employees, or consultants in staff augmentation engagements, having an understanding of the company's context makes for smoother integration into the existing process, and more well-informed suggestions for team improvement. Client team members bring the greatest understanding of why their team works the way it does, even if they've stopped being conciously aware of it; it takes time for an outside consultant to build up that same knowledge. Simply asking "why" in the beginning of the engagement can have a positive effect on the team, helping them to become aware of the blind spots that may have developed as a result of pickling.

Even at engagements where the client is asking for change, in which being "differently brined" is an advantage, some amount of pickling can be helpful. Test Double believes that long-lasting change requires trust and a solid relationship between client and agency. We don't want to come in and make unreasonable demands; we want to work with a client team to challenge and overcome the aspects of their context that may be holding them back from high performance. Accomplishing all of that requires time, effort, and just enough pickling to ensure we're making changes that are relevent to the client needs.

Pickling gets problematic when it becomes unconscious—when the cucumber finally becomes the pickle, so to speak. Employees may get so adjusted to a set of circumstances that change no longer feels like an option. Consultants, over time, may find their objectivity eroded by complacency or resistence. It's possible that too much pickling can lead to feelings of helplessness, complacency, and burnout. According to Weinberg, this is normal; at Test Double, we believe it's part of being human. The key is to be aware of this tendency to acclimate, so that we can judge its effects on our clients and ourselves.

Thinking Outside the Jar

If the pickling of individual consultants is inevitable, Weinberg says, "[t]he challenge... is how to get the client in long, continued contact with some kind of brine, without the consultant even being present." For us, this might mean rotating consultant on long engagements, so no individual Test Double agent spends too much time at a single client. It could also mean working on our internal connectedness, and giving agents exposure to other brines3. Finally, it may include posts like this one, which provide a slice of our context for your consumption.

Thanks for reading!

For more information on Prescott's Pickle Principle, and other ideas about consulting, we highly recommend Secrets of Consulting by Gerald Weinberg.

1 I always wonder what big data algorithms think of my search history, considering the amount of food-adjacent names in programming. Are you hungry, Brittany, or are you just working? Seriously, try searching for "cucumber homebrew" and see where you end up.

2 Though it does involve salt, some days.

3 This is another thing we're considering, though it didn't really fit into this post: what is the "Test Double" brine, and how do we avoid pickling ourselves?

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