Thursday, 22 March 2012

Fighting the good fight (A personal parole)

Recently, Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei) has raised his lashing of agile and all its manifestations to a frenzy. His language has become ever more dramatic and sensationalist, culminating in a post entitled 'Agile Coaching is Evil'. To understand what the point of all this might be it is essential to read another post of his; 'On the Morality of Dissent'.

If you can peel back the layers of irony and provocation - all this talk of morals and ethics and Good and Evil – then there is certainly value to be discovered in what is being said. I continue however to disagree fundamentally with much of the detail of what Marshall is promulgating, even as I find his stated goals honourable and worthwhile. Yes, I am an agile coach.

I view the three main points of Marshall's argument in 'Agile Coaching is Evil', points that he makes repeatedly over many channels, as:

  1. Tackling partial problems leads only to more problems – systems must be addressed holistically otherwise any change will eventually be swallowed up by the system.
  2. Effectiveness being a function of mindset implies that significant change can only be realised once a radical and wholesale philosophical shift has been effected
  3. Anyone purporting to help an organisation improve its effectiveness by way of local optimisations is at best naïve, probably disingenuous and possibly plain corrupt
Let's start with the holistic systems-thinking argument. It is in fact, easily dismissed:

There is no point in addressing problems in your software development organisation because the organisation around it has not yet changed its mindset (had its mindset changed? brainwashing, hypnosis, how does this happen?), therefore any optimisation achieved within your sw development organisation will eventually be nullified or even reversed by the immovable object of the mindset of the departments adjacent to it in the value chain. Okay. Say we effect mindset shifts in product management, sw development and operations? Not enough - finance, sales, customer service etc, still have not moved so eventually the local optimisation will be swamped by the inertia of the rest of the organisation. And so on until the company has somehow instantaneously leaped the mindset chasm as a single organism. But wait. Then there is the system that is the markets in which the company operates. If said markets haven't changed their mindsets in the meantime the company we have been talking about is doomed, after all, it will eventually succumb to the mindset of the greater system in which it, sub-system, is embedded. Etc., ad infinitum.

There is much of use in systems-thinking, and its focus on people and their empowerment can be found in agile, lean and the Cynefin model (complexity). In all these other cases however there is either the implicit or explicit recognition that everything progresses in small steps. In the case of Cynefin, which specifically addresses complexity and our inability to use reductionism to solve certain problems (initially), it's interesting to note that a heuristic like 'fine-grained objects' is prevalent. Wicked problems are untangled strand by strand. Possibly also interesting to note at this juncture is the fact that much of what one might do in the complex domain in the Cynefin model is aimed at moving problems into the complicated domain. Black-box observation with the specific aim of making reductionist analysis possible!

Regarding mindset shifts as a pre-requisite for increased effectiveness:

I think that Marshall has this exactly wrong. Strangely enough this would seem to be a position he has arrived at since he first published his Marshall Model, sub-titled as it is “Dreyfus for the organisation”. The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, as with other learning models, implies that insight (mindset) follows practice and not the other way round. In other words, Marshall's insistence that effectiveness follows mindset is in my opinion, the misattribution of cause and effect to an observable correlation. I would posit that mindset is an emergent property of practice. More correctly, practice informs mindset which in turn informs practice – a positive (meaning re-enforcing) feedback loop. There is no conflict here with the observed mindset leaps at the boundaries of the organisation types in Marshall's model. Punctuated equilibrium is not an alternative to gradual change, it is its manifestation in the real world; phase shifts are the result of cumulative change in combination with tipping points.

If Effectiveness = f(Mindeset)
         and Mindest = f(practice)
then Effectiveness = f(practice)

Rightshifting phases - copyright 2010

On local optimisations and the nefariousness of their champions:

It is possible to learn without a teacher, in some ways it might even be better (conjecture; one might continue to nourish a beginner's mind more easily), but it is almost certainly the slowest way to learn and autodidacts are often hampered by strategic weak spots in their conceptual armoury. There are of course always bad teachers, in every domain.

In my role as coach, I pursue small modifications in local practice and understanding, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Does this make me naïve, disingenuous or corrupt? I can't be accused of naivete precisely because I realise that change, if achieved at all, happens in small steps. Because I communicate exactly this to (prospective) clients, and always start any discussion with an enquiry as to why agile, I am not disingenuous. If my only motivation were my pay cheque I would be corrupt. I am however motivated primarily by the conviction that work for most people is unnecessarily miserable, a drudgery to be survived rather than a fulfilling and rewarding part of life. I feel that the agile manifesto can help and that it is as relevant today as it was ten years ago. The only thing required to make it universally applicable is to replace 'working software' with 'concrete product' (or some such).

I shall continue to try and execute workplace coaching transparently, on the basis of high bandwidth communication, and regularly vetted by concrete results, as a force for good in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Umm, the idea of the complex space is that any coherent action is made subject to a safe-to-fail experiment. There is no untangling of a wicked problem as an analytic process. As some experiments fail and others succeed there will be migration in whole or part to the complicated domain. In the context of those actions each experiment will be small (finely grained). I'm not sure if you are saying anything different, but it could be mis-read.

    Thanks for the post - useful