Thoughts on Marriage

My brother married recently. It was a lovely afternoon, and thrilling to see the two of them looking so happy, but what touched me most was something he said in his speech.

You see, marriage isn’t a big thing in my close family, and when pressed—ever so gently—on the matter, my brother and his girlfriend had always brushed off suggestions that they might get married, so it came as a wonderful surprise when they announced their engagement. And then, on his wedding day, my brother explained that, yes, they had never seen much attraction in marriage until I, his brother, married my partner Peer. This, he said, was what showed him that marriage still had a relevance today, and this was a tipping point in their decision to get engaged.

Of course, Peer and I didn’t actually get married. We couldn’t. Instead we entered into a civil partnership. But we have always spoken of each other as husbands, and have always referred to the day as our wedding, even if that wasn’t strictly true, and it was lovely to feel that our example, far from undermining the institution of marriage, had lent it contemporary relevance to a mixed-sex couple who might otherwise have been happy to continue cohabiting.

Today, however, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act received royal assent, and soon we will be able to have a proper, legally recognised marriage, rather than a next-best civil partnership.

But I’m not celebrating.

First, there is the disgraceful way this legislation has thrown trans* people under the bus, and while I am pleased that I may personally gain something from the act, I cannot in good faith celebrate something that disregards the rights of a more marginalised group of people. It is fantastic that gay rights have progressed to this point, but saddening that those of our trans* friends lag so far behind.

Then there is the way that this act retains the gender-specificity of previous legislation: rather than removing references to ‘a man and a woman’ in previous legislation, this act simply makes additional references to ‘a same-sex couple’.

But there are some remarks by Helen Grant, in the discussion of the spousal veto on Gender Recognition Certificates, that add to the disquiet I feel about this.

On 21 May, Grant said:

It must be remembered that a marriage is contracted between two people who should have an equal say in the future of that marriage. We consider that it would be unfair to remove the right of every non-trans spouse to have a say in the future of their marriage before gender recognition takes place. 21 May 2013 : Column 1146

The implication here is that if one spouse is granted a Gender Recognition Certificate, the nature of their marriage changes, and that is why the other spouse’s consent is needed. In other words, a marriage between a man and a woman is not the same as a same-sex marriage, and the two are so distinct that someone should have a veto over their partner’s self-realisation to protect them from slipping from one form of marriage to the other.

What this means is that, far from opening up the existing institution of marriage to same-sex couples, we are in fact creating a new institution, also called ‘marriage’, in many ways interchangeable, but still different enough to merit the insertion of the spiteful spousal veto into this act. Funny enough, this is pretty much what civil partnership did, and that its lack of equivalence led to the campaign for same-sex marriage.

So no, I don’t feel we have achieved true equality. I don’t believe we will have achieved that until we can get marriage redefined in truly gender-agnostic terms as a union between two persons, with none of these weasel mentions of gender or insinuations that one configuration might be less desirable than another. In the mean time, I will recognise the passing of this act into law as an incremental step towards equality, but not the glorious triumph that some would claim.

Roles vs Activities

At work, Gonçalo sent round a link to an article by Michael Lopp on management and engineers. Lots of discussion ensued, much of it fairly tangential.

This discussion got me thinking about the difference between roles and activities, and I’m going to sketch out these ideas here.

Roles

It is easy to talk about roles: a Project Manager does X, a Product Manager does Y; a Developer does φ, a Tester does χ, and Architect does ψ. This thinking encourages us to assign roles to people: to turn them into jobs.

Lopp talks about ownership, and certainly, if a role is assigned to a person, you know where to go to to get answers in that domain. If I have a Project Manager, I know who will give me updates on the progress of the project; if I have a Tester, I know who to ask to test a piece of functionality.

But it’s also about blame. If I have a Project Manager, then I know who to shout at if the project falls behind schedule; if I have a Tester, I know who to sack if a vulnerability is released that leaks personal data.

And I wonder whether the focus on individuals filling roles not only encourages this focus on blame, but remains attractive when a culture of blame persists.

Getting away from blame

At my work, when something goes horribly wrong, we carry out a blame-free post mortem. We establish the facts of the incident, acknowledge the aggravating factors, take note of the mitigating factors, and come up with a plan for the future. During this process we recognise that people did things, but don’t get hung up on criticising them for their actions; rather we try to understand why they acted in the way they did, and how we can make this better next time.

This approach differs radically from the traditional approach of declaring ‘heads will roll’, initiating a witch hunt, and ensuring that the persons responsible are at the very least made to feel thoroughly shitty, and quite possibly relieved of their duties.

In conducting a blame-free post mortem, we are not interested in roles and responsibilities, we are interested in actions and activities. It matters less who acted than what action was taken; not who failed to act, but what action would have helped.

Activities

Recover from incidents is smoother if we focus on activities rather than roles, actions rather than people; can this shift in emphasis help elsewhere? I think it can.

Again, where I work we don’t have Architects. This doesn’t mean we don’t do Architecture: we do it all the time. Our team whiteboards are decorated with particoloured diagrams of the systems we’re building. We treat Architecture as an activity, not as a role, and this means that many people are involved, understanding of the decisions is pervasive, assumptions are more likely to be challenged, and single points of failure are less likely to exist.

And what happens if we make a catastrophically bad architectural decision? Well, there is no one to point the finger at, no convenient repository for blame, as the decision was collective and consensual. Instead, we can recognise that the decision was poor, learn from that, and adapt and move on.

Conclusion

I have seen how a limited shift in focus from roles to activities can work well. I wonder whether a more comprehensive shift would have further advantages. This isn’t to suggest that everyone should be engaged in all activities all of the time, but rather that by introducing flexibility, collaboration and sharing, we might be able to move further away from a culture of blame.