Mind your P’s and W’s

June 21, 2014

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who

Kipling, from The Elephant's Child

Of all the Just So Stories the Kolokolo Bird's injunction to “Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out”  as a means of discovering what the crocodile has for lunch has been one of my all time favourites; both as a child, and then as an adult reading to children.  For those unfamiliar with the story of How the Elephant Got its Trunk the basic plot involves a act of pragmatic discovery, a heroic rescue by the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake and considerable amounts of spanking.

I was reminded of it when I put the triangle pictured in a moment of frustration earlier today.  I'd just un-followed and blocked someone on twitter following on the grounds that conversation with someone who can only engage using ad hominem arguments eventually ends up with you dragging yourself down to their level.  First time I've actually blocked someone and from the direct messages I was not the first to do so on this exchange.  I know they can still see what you post but it makes a point. After three extended threads with no progress time to call it a day.  The negative exchange had started with my earlier criticism of SAFe as the infantilism of management.  The individual concerned was offering training in the subject and took things a little personally. When you can't say anything about a subject without a respondent taking high umbrage and responding with quite nasty invective little progress can be made, especially when they seem to have no awareness of the language they are using.  Maybe face to face it might be different but not in a twitter stream.

Now you don't need to understand the whole controversy around SAFe from the Agile community to get the point of this post.  I have some future posts planned on SAFe and the approach to scaling it typifies.  This post, while it is relevant to that argument, stands aside from the debate as it is making a generic series of comments about the way in which methods and tools are both created and more critically how they scale. 

So to the triad pictured.  It looks at three aspects of developing and scaling methods.  Those are:

  • Practice, namely what actually happens in a specific context (ideally contexts) from which we can draw experience, create and modify our approach and generally make things real.
  • People by which I mean what types of people can practice, what skills are necessary, experience and capability.  Not everyone can do everything so its an important constraint on scaling practice and its nature may vary over time.
  • Postulates, my long hand for theory and to be honest I needed a P! Properly that comes from asking the question Why did this work but can also include ​In theory this might work lets try it. The latter approach works well under conditions of uncertainty when there is little to draw on from past experience.

Now properly understood praxis is about all three, combining theory with practice to create sustainable and resilient solutions.  The problem is that people usually focus on one, maybe two and rarely three.  So lets look at three negative approaches that take a single perspective.  These are all too common and I face them on a daily basis (or so it seems).

  • Practice only, where someone does something in one project or company and immediately jumps to the conclusion that this approach will work everywhere else.  I've seen this with knowledge management teams, closed down when they lost sponsorship, who go onto create consultancy businesses based on their past case studies (which were generally their own narrative anyway).  In Agile I've seen it with consultants taking the Executive sponsor of a project with them into a consultancy business based on a single case study. More often than not this is well intentioned but it can deeply cynical.  Then you get the even more cynical and exploitative magpie approach which takes the I heard this worked for some other people so I'll badge it up and sell training approach.  Fortunately that is rare but the offer of accreditation is normally a warning sign for any approach not supported by a considerable body of knowledge to back up the case studies.  It needs a lot of cases as well, not just one or two.
  • For some all formal methods and theories are just starting points that allow good People to adapt and change what they have heard or are being trained on, into an new situation  Thats OK within limits.  A fully trained chef can use a recipe book to stimulate ideas and that is all well and good.  However someone who has not served an apprentice and studied their subject is still a recipe book user and departing from the recipe is dangerous.  My real concern here is those who use this to justify any thing on the basis that (i) it sells and (ii) they can probably make it work on the day.  That verges on the deeply cynical/exploitative.
  • Finally we get the behaviour of far too many academics.  They simply Postulate based on reports of practice.  The really idiotic rely on self reports from those with a vested interest, often dressed up in a series of interviews.  They only really want to write papers, which is after all what they are measured on.  Their sins are those of omission, in that they do have knowledge of theory but don't want to engage until there is a stable body of cases.  This in turn is predicated on the assumption that human systems can be studied in the same way that Newton observed apples falling to the ground.  That is at best a partial model of scientific enquiry.

Now all of these in isolation worry me.  Combinations of two worry me less, but overall all three need to be present to scale properly.   I'll continue with that tomorrow.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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