Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–

March 3, 2018

This is the first of a series of posts on the agility; of indeterminate length and intermittent in nature it will, of necessity be at times polemical and curmudgeonly. To set the context, it all started with the Agile manifesto, went onto the Agile method wars (as yet no peace settlement but its settled into trench warfare with he occasional football match at Christmas) and is now splitting into intensive, and I think irreversible, commodification on the one hand and as a parasite on the general failures of strategy and organisation practice on the other. Now commodities have value and sooner or later a significant number of parasites become symbiotic, so this is not all doom and gloom. There is potential her, but not if we simply repeat patterns of partial, contextual success.

A common theme to this series will be Lewis Carroll for reasons that will be self-evident if they are not already. I will capitalise anything that arises from the Agile manifesto as it applies to software and related service development; lower case for the more general use of the idea.

More on all of that in subsequent posts but for the moment I want to look at, and define some key terms that are all too often confused and conflated, not to mention being subject to nonsensical questions of status. We had aspects of this with complexity with people privileging methods for complexity over those for order, despite the fact that both have equal contextual value. The desire for universal methods rather than contextual understanding remains a scary aspect of organisational work, as does claiming that a collection of methods coupled with a set of ideological beliefs is a framework.

So to five definitions all things, all of which are legitimate, all of which have value:

  • A model seeks to represent reality, or more appropriately some aspect of the world. It allows for simulation and exploration without encountering the irreversibility of reality.  The cliche rightly says that all models are wrong, but some are useful, but the cliche is linked to the nature of a model and its claims; it is not a universal statement.
  • A framework provides a way, or better ways, of looking at the world or an aspect of the world.  Ideally a framework provides different perspectives on an issue.  It allows things to be looked at from those perspectives.  Frameworks can be taxonomies or typologies with the latter less prone to category errors.  They can be social constructs, based on research or derived from some body of underlying theory.   Cynefin for example is a typology derived from theory, but the fact that said theory implies phase shifts means that it also as some taxonomic qualities.
  • A method represents a defined process or processes which if followed produce defined results.  It may incorporate other methods and may have ideological aspects associated with its adoption or rejection but at its heart it provides a repeatable way of achieving results which reduced the need to reinvention (that can be good or bad by the way)
  • A manifesto is an ideological statement of how things should be, or more frequently how they should not be.  Such documents generally represent themselves, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, as revolutionary or transformational in nature.  They may be nailed to church doors to make a point or written up in books or pamphlets. They always require transition but rarely pay attention to the process of transition; they are visionary, focused on a desired future state or a despised present state.
  • A creed is a simple way of defining and remembering things that all know, or merely likely belief, in such a way that they can be understood over a range of intellectual abilities and knowledge.  Again they are as much about what is excluded as included and generally are produced in response to some external threat.  A creed will generally manifests an ideology.

Now calling a method a framework and taking an ideological approach to its adoption is a venial sin; aggregating everything you think people might want to buy is a mortal sin and we see both in the Agile movement. I have a nasty suspicion we are going to see the same approachs, which have failure hard baked into them, with the wider adoption of agility as an idea.

More on all of this in future posts, including the consequences of confusion.

One response to “Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–”

  1. James Turner says:

    Hi Dave,
    One area that’s ripe for confusion when discussing “Agile” methods is the use of the word framework. It certainly caught me out when reading some of your previous posts until I did some research. Amongst the software community it’s used in a much more general (and common) sense describing a super-structure of either code or development methodology you work within. For example Scrum describes itself as a framework ‘Scrum (n): A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems. It’s great you’ve layed out your specific knowledge management based definition of the word but for the sake of readers of future blogs it’s good to reiterate the distinction

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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.

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