Between the ideal and real?

December 9, 2014

An interesting extended weekend in an Agile Alliance think tank I joined last year.  Then it was held in Hillsborough, this year we changed continents and headed for Stockholm to meet in Ericsson’s offices while staying in the Scandic Victoria Hotel (pictured).    I’m not sure even now if the hotel is an eyesore or an example of architectural genius.  It certainly makes an impression, dominating the local landscape and as such my dilemma about its aesthetic and functional merit forms a sort of metaphor for a divide that emerged within the sessions.

Now this is the fourth time the event has been held and the second time for me. With a common core but some changes, relationships have developed the point where it’s OK to call out some issues.  Mind you there were a few tense moments, I know I caused one. At the age of 60 working with adults I’ve lost the patience to pussy-foot around issues or try and pretend that every idea or approach has equal value.   As anyone who has to deal with creationists knows its not about saying all theories are equally valid.  Sometimes you just have to say that some are not as long as you are prepared to defend the position.   Far too many people can’t separate criticism of an idea from criticism of the person, or for that matter useful debate from contempt (although I do think most creationists who have had the chance of education and rejected it deserve contempt).  

One big divide emerged as we started to look at specific project developments and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it.  On the one side we had people who wanted to define how things should be, on the other those of us who wanted to change things now.  I used to be on the other side before I really got into complexity theory and I sympathise with it but increasingly worry it allows people to escape action.  Its a modern instantiation of the justification by faith alone or by works and faith debate which has its own history and conflict

I characterise the divide as the difference between defining an ideal future state, or set of behaviours that are desirable, or acting in the present to change things so that people’s attitudes and beliefs change as a result of their interactions on the other.   You could see it in the projects people choose to work on.  One I was involved in started to define a new approach to scaling systems and creating a formal method for project management in complex systems.  That started as software development but then gained from the realisation it could be applied generally to many activities.   The other group defined the abstract qualities they thought should be present in individuals for progress to be made.  We went on to define a The New Artisan project which is designed to change interactions over time rather than define competences and qualities, they focused on declarations and papers.

The one is a pull strategy, it defines a future state and aims to close the gap.  The other focuses on describing the present more accurately, then changing the nature of interactions so that new patterns emerge.  As patterns emerge they can be reinforced or disrupted so you remain open to evolutionary possibilities that cannot be forecast and should not be defined.  It’s not a push strategy either, nor is it linear in nature but it works at a finer level of granularity and higher level abstraction to allow emergent patterns.  The divide is also is linked to the difference between those of us who use science to inform practice and those who seek to define ideal practices from cases.  So it’s a pretty fundamental divide.   I’m going to spend more time on articulating this difference and its implications over Christmas so all comments welcome.

Now I can understand the approach of the other “side” and for many people I respect it (but that is not universal).   One consequence of that respect is I now have to read a book introduced by Ken Wilber which argues for a Teal state of enlightenment.  I doubt I will enjoy that but I may enjoy writing about it!

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