The cargo cult of business jargon

Flight of fancy...now boarding!

My first thought when I saw this post by Glen Alleman was “cargo cult“. 

I’m wary of concepts from hard sciences that find their way into business jargon, largely because the concepts become incantations.  It feels like we’re appropriating the prestige of science, just like a cargo cult’s “focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices.”

In other words, I cringe when I hear incantations like — “complexity”, “emergent”, etc. — as if the words in and of themselves suffice.   It’s nothing but meaningless superstition without insight and actions that solve problems or exploit opportunities.

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Conditions for “organized emergence”

Emmanuel Gobillot commented on my post on self-organization (here).  I liked his comment so much that I thought it was worth highlighting below:

I have found four conditions which need to be in place for communities to be productive.  I called these

Simplicity (a coherent and simple way to engage),
Narrative (an underpinning story for people to align to),
Tasks (a clear set of tasks which participants can measure against their self image) and
Love (the willingness to commit to making others stronger).

These elements encourage emergence but are better designed. In many ways this explains the need for the famous “benevolent dictators” we have come to identify with emergent systems.

IMO, community-building often focuses on conditions 1&4, especially in knowledge management efforts.  Addressing these topics seems to attract membership, but this tactic only meets some of a community’s needs.  Without the structure and content provided by conditions 2&3, communities are only coherent and useful for those most interested in conversation and networking.

In my experience, very interesting conversations spring up in “Simplicity” and “Love”-centric communities.  However, there are so many stories being told that it is hard to pick a single thread and follow it through to closure.  Without an over-arching “Narrative” that values the “Task” work — something like “Community X’s mission is to create a knowledge sharing network and promote re-use of recommended practices in strategic topics A, B, and C” — the community becomes all talk, no deliverables.

PM Quote of the Day — Roald Amundsen

Adventure is just bad planning.”

I’ve found that the amount of adventure in a project is inversely proportional to the amount of proper planning that went into — and continued throughout — that project.  Glen hits that point (here) when he uses the 5 P’s — a long-ago Scoutmaster (a USMC sergeant) introduced them more saltily as the 6 P’s — to frame a discussion of emergence in project requirements. 

In his own way, Sergeant Martinez made emergence very clear to we tenderfeet many years ago.  When we whined about having to learn how to prevent and fix blisters, to pack correctly, to read a map, etc., he asked those very same “If -> What” questions Glen mentioned:

  • If you get blisters, what will you do (without knowing how to prevent and fix)?
  • If if rains, what will you do (without a poncho)?
  • If you get off the trail, what do you need to to get back on it (without a map and knowing how to reach it)?

When we protested that we weren’t Marines he noted — after advising us that under no circumstances would the Corps want us anyway — that it was more important for inexperienced hikers to plan so that we didn’t get into trouble.  As he went on to note, on our hikes we were looking to have fun, learn a bit of woodscraft (actually “desert craft”), and otherwise enjoy our encounter with nature.  Fending for our health and lives wasn’t one of our hikes’ requirements…

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