Self-destructive tendencies

September 3, 2020

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One of the most painful ever scenes for anyone of a progressive mindset is the People’s front of Judea from Monty Pythons Life of Brian which came out in 1979.  I think it is my favorite of the Monty Python films. Aside from the People’s Front, I love the final scene Always Look on the Bright Side of Life which I have used to satirise over enthusiastic proponents of Appreciative Inquiry and many a corporate rah-rah session. Back in the 70s in the UK and elsewhere progressives, in this case, the Left in general, constantly split over minor points of doctrine to the point where they were inward not outward-looking and ultimately made little or no impact.

None of that has really changed.  The major issue of the day, our knowing mortal sin, in destroying out planet through human-initiated climate change and reduction of bio-diversity has similar issues.  Interesting in Laudato Si’ (on care for our common home) Pope  Francis opens by a reference back to John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris which calls for peace in a world of war.  Everything has changed and nothing has changed.  Those who want to make progress cannot agree on how change should happen. Those not interested in change, and those actively concerned to prevent it, have far fewer problems and have no need to be the United Front of anything.

I earlier referenced Appreciative Inquiry, in the original development by Cooperrider and others was significant, well thought through, and valuable.  But as it became increasingly industrialised and simplified (a metaphor for having its heart stripped out) it became in many cases a happy-clappy movement that sought to avoid anything negative, no matter what the learning.  Further, its practitioners would deride as evil (I am not joking here, ask Mary Boone about our encounter with the cult on the west coast of Ireland a couple of decades or more ago) anything that saw value in capturing and understanding stories of failure which is actually where a lot of learning takes place.  And I could give other examples, but the proximate prompt to write this blog is the repetition of the same phenomenon in the Agile community.

I remember my re-engagement with the Software Development community back in 2004 when I presented Cynefin at an XP (Extreme Programming) event in London and a group of people from that event attended a Cynefin training course in London the following year. Now I had had been involved in software most of my adult life and had been a part of the founding of DSDM which, like XP, was one of the established bodies of methods that became a part of the Agile Manifesto. Interestingly the Agile Manifesto is roughly the same age as Cynefin; though they evolved separately, by 2008 they started to come together and the interaction has been a rich source of ideas and practice ever since.  It has also been a fascinating study of what happens to a movement that started off with the intent of liberation and has, with exceptions, become a series of squabbling certification schemes and tribes (in the worst sense of the word).  I remember speaking for David Anderson at a KANBAN event on the west coast and being told that I would be ostracised by true devotees of Scrum as a result and there are other examples.   One of my most popular talks to that community at the moment is titled Rewilding Agile and I open it by pointing out the contrast between wild canine species (small numbers, highly resilient) and domesticated dog breeds (large numbers, generally lacking resilience).  I finish it with what is, to me, a clear metaphor to The Cat who walked by himself and all places were alike unto him. Slightly tongue in cheek I suggest that people owned by Cats live complexity while people who own dogs are seeking to avoid it.  Factionalism and attempts at domestication for control purposes seems to be endemic to progressive movement.

But there is another self-destructive characteristic which is worth pointing out, and which prompted this post. It is a variation on the theme of factionalism, namely an excessive concern with authorisation.  It’s a common tactic adopted by people who haven’t got the authority they think they deserve and instead fall into a pattern of control through process.  They want approval mechanisms, strong rules, and the like.  They create multiple documents (which swamp anyone with real work to do) and doctrinal statements with a high moral tone about what is permitted and what should be excluded.  They haven’t got anything original to say, so they try and dumb things down to their level of understanding and capability.  They are the homogenisers, who lack the capacity to cope with differences and seek to eliminate them.

If you want to change things then you need to let a thousand flowers bloom; Some will thrive, some will not; you can’t determine in advance what will work.  People with original ideas, who want to move beyond the bland to something novel and exciting will not have the energy to combat homogenisation which is always portrayed as ever so ever so reasonable; a bit like Uriah Heep’s cloying approach to “umbleness” in David Copperfield.  The net result is that those with original ideas move on and while everyone left is happy nothing changes, the lowest common denominator wins out.   Of course, there are limits on the nature of that disagreement and I started some work on that earlier this week.  But in general, you want a wildflower meadow, not a formal garden.

Wildflower meadow by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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