Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Iteration produced the Constitution

The other day, I was in a meeting with a potential customer. I explained that when I'm faced with the daunting task of having to build something complicated, I take what's called an iterative approach.

Taking an iterative approach starts with an early phase of exploring the problem by creating a quick, throw-away prototype that works. It gives a sense of what's possible and what's not, and quickly pokes holes in any weak spots in the overall idea.

Sometimes, I think I'm crazy for taking this approach, but it works wonders for me. It helps that people like the folks at 37signals and Fred Brooks have written explanations of the methodology more thoroughly and eloquently than I could possibly write, but I was doubly reassured during my reading lately when I read about how the United States Constitution came about.

In particular, the odd setup of our legislative branch is due to an iterative approach the Founding Fathers took at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Large states favored a scheme now known as the Virginia Plan, which proposed a two-house legislature where both houses had representatives that were apportioned according to population. The smaller states favored the New Jersey Plan, which proposed a single chamber with one representative from each state.

Now, we look back on the process with our mighty historical hindsight and we look at the Virginia Plan coming from the large states. We might be tempted to think, "Oh, they're just pandering to their own interests. What a crock. That's a terrible scheme to have. How dare they have the audacity to propose something so blatantly self-serving?" The same could be said of the small states.

But what's important is that they tried. They came up with something, put it forth, and asked, "How about this? What do you guys think?" Both the large states and the small states knew that their proposals would have holes poked through them, but they gave it a shot so they could make some progress.

And when this happens, you get something like the Connecticut Compromise, which looked at what everyone thought of the schemes proposed up until then, and said, "Hey, if we go with the Virginia Plan's two houses, we've got some room to work with. What if we make representation in the lower house proportional to population, but give each state equal representation in the upper house, like the New Jersey Plan proposed?"

If even the Founding Fathers had to resort to iteration, I would think it mighty cavalier of me to think I could possibly plan out a complicated system in one fell swoop.

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