A few thoughts on Stoos

I’ve enjoyed the bits and pieces of Stoos I’ve picked up, mostly via Jurgen Appelo‘s summaries (the discussions at the LinkedIn group have been valuable as well).  For those who aren’t familiar with the Stoos Gathering, the goal was modest, but the topic was bold:

At the Stoos Gathering we will discuss how to accelerate change in management and organizational transformation.

That’s all?  More seriously, I love the ambition and it it has been great grist for my mental mill, especially these three themes in the documents and discussions:

  1. Leaders should change themselves first: A fellow named “Hank” noted this in the pre-gathering documents.  For example, leaders who have not learned to self-forget may find they struggle to build trust.  And putting spiritual traditions aside, those who have not tended to their spiritual armor will find they cannot resist the forces of reaction.
  2. “The Problem” will prove a crafty and adaptive foe: Steve Demming notes that “the participants left for a future time evaluations of the best ways of getting from “the problem” to “the desired outcome.”  Wise move, because IMO these “best ways” will have to contend with Anna Karenina Syndrome: “Happy firms are all alike; every unhappy firm is unhappy in its own way.”  The solutions must be viral, in every sense of that word.
  3. Beware introducing “corporate managers”: I’ve seen a desire to involve corporate managers into Stoos what Jurgen calls Management 3.0.  That’s great, but some of us are “The Problem” and aren’t self-aware enough to know it (see point one).  I’m especially concerned about two types: those who’ll want to boil it all down to “one particular approach” and those who’ll pick any work product apart as “impractical”, “not actionable”, “unrealistic”, etc.

Not quite Cortez burning the boats, but… (RT @jurgenappelo)

Backing oneself into a corner works too! (RT @jurgenappelo)
Worked for my blog too. After several failed blogs I picked the most expensive blogging platform for NOOP.NL. The invoice kept me going.

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”?

Top 100 Development Blogs

Jurgen Appelo posted an excellent list of his Top 100 Development Blogs (here).  I had considered self-nominating Crossderry, but wondered if I was sufficiently on-topic. 

It does, however, look like Jurgen casts a broad and eclectic net.   I’ve already found four or five blogs I’m going to follow more closely.

How much complexity theory can we apply in IT?

I’m fascinated by complexity theory and attempts to apply its insights to the software business.  If you’re interested in those topics you could do worse that to add two bloggers — Jurgen and Bas — to your newsreader (don’t forget about Crossderry). 

Both touch on complexity regularly (Jurgen’s latest here, Bas’s latest here) and they’re clearly big fans of the theory and its implications.  I agree there’s much that’s applicable, especially the concepts of iteration and feedback, which can even be used in “waterfall” approaches (here and here).  My academic background makes me especially sympathetic to the limits of central planning (start here re: Hayek).

That said, I’m not sure we can rely on self-organization for everything.  The most effective models of complex adaptive systems are derived from simple rules that generate complex phenomena.  This approach is mimicked effectively in agile, iterative, and other rapid development techniques (list of SW methodologies here).  Simple feature lists, regular interactions with stakeholders, short cycles, many versions of usable work product, etc. can generate feature-rich and useful applications.

However, the scalability and stability of these applications is often problematic.  IMO, this result is to be expected given the evolution of complexity among living things.  We like to point to complex creatures and structures — e.g., human brains — to support applications of complexity theory. 

But do we remember that most life is still very simple (about half of the biomass is microscopic)?  Also, aren’t complex creatures the ones that have had the spectacular denouements over the eons?  Betting on self-organization isn’t always a winning bet.  As I said, I instinctively like leveraging complexity concepts, but we must remember that they cut both ways.

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