Goals and the limits of self-organization

Thought-provoking post by Jurgen Appelo on the teleology of software projects (post here, check the perceptive comments too).  More properly, he points out that projects do not have a goal in and of themselves.  In his words, they don’t have intrinsic goals (other than self-preservation).

For me, this insight points to the limits of self-organization in initiatives.   IMO, without some degree of design — or extrinsic goals — a self-organized system (or pieces of that system) can get off the rails.  There is a tremendous amount of power in emergent-friendly systems — that’s what social media is all about.   For example, what emerges from Wikipedia is clearly emergent, but it has a explicit goal and with an extrinsic design model:

Wikipedia’s purpose is to act as an encyclopedia, a comprehensive written compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge

Finding the proper balance between design and emergence is a fascinating topic.  In fact, my take is that this topic is the subtext of many of the arguments among methodology adherents — waterfall vs. agile. 

I’m always a bit leery of purist arguments.  In fact, I have a syncretist’s instinct to “square the circle”.  Perhaps what I’m looking for is something like Deng Xiaoping’s modifications to traditional Marxist dogma…   How about “Waterfall with Agile Characteristics”?


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