Monthly Archives: March 2012

Kinky Agile Sex

Linkbait Apology

If you’ve arrived here expecting some kind of titillation or advice on athletic sexual technique, then, as Ackoff once observed, you may “feel like a pornographic movie being shown to people who’ve just engaged in sex… in short, anti-climax”.

Oh, and if you don’t enjoy ethical dilemmas, this post is probably not for you, either. Sorry.

The Lede

So, here it is. The ethical dilemma in question:

When do the noble aims and aspirations of Agile Coaching, Agile Software Development, etc., cross some invisible line and degenerate into “base and unworthy use” of folk’s talents and abilities?

My contention is that this happens all too often.

Why it Matters

I see and hear of a lot of folks that are unhappy or stressed-out by the uneasy tension that exists between many Agile people and teams, and the wider organisations that they serve. This makes me want to help. To the extent that talking about things helps, that’s what I’m doing with some of my blog posts, including this one.

Words, Words

I have to thank @pablopernot for guiding me to the roots of the word “coach”, including the insight that “En Normand, le terme coche désigne une prostituée ; le mot encore utilisé aujourd’hui dans toute la Normandie” [Translation: In Norman , the term coach designates a prostitute; the word is still used today all over Normandy].

You can see where this is going…


[pros-ti-too-shuhn, -tyoo-]  noun

2. base or unworthy use, as of talent or ability.

I know many Agile coaches, Scrum Masters, Agile Developers, and Agile folks in general. Many of these are highly talented, with many fine abilities – not Lemons. I feel for them in the situations in which they often find themselves – prostituting their talents and performing unnatural acts, against their natural inclinations and better judgements, for money. If that’s not kinky, then I don’t know what is.


[king-kee]  adjective

3. (Slang) marked by unconventional preferences or behaviour, as fetishism, sadomasochism, or the like.

4. having to do with someone or something strange or weird.

In case you’re wondering about what I mean by “performing unnatural acts”, etc., here’s just a few things that some of my Agile friends have mentioned to me recently:

  • Coaches being asked to provide estimates for a project, even commit to them on behalf of their team
  • Scrum Masters being compelled to “open” the black box of the Scrum iteration and report on progress / status during a sprint.
  • Developers being moved from one team to another at the behest of management and without the consent of anyone involved.
  • Teams being “stuffed” with narrow specialists, with regard to neither flexibility nor social “fit”.
  • Teams compelled to conform to corporate “standards” with regard to development tools, practices.
  • Teams precluded from implementing improvements because they “deviate from the Book“.
  • Restricted (or no) access to business domain experts.
  • First deployment into production deferred until six months after project start.
  • Scrum Masters whose time is divided between a number of teams, to the detriment of all.
  • Being asked to do things that will likely undermine the trust, commitment and cohesion of the team.
(If you have any other examples, I’d love to add them to this list).

Historical Parallels and Ironies

I spent some months working in Munich, Germany in the mid-90’s. One of the strangest things this repressed Anglo-Saxon discovered was that German brothels were legal and state-licensed. The parallels between my status in Munich as a IT contractor and the girls working in the brothels seemed ironic.
Deeper ironic asides:
  • Although foreign IT workers and sex workers at that time were both required to register with the Police, foreign IT workers were not required to be regularly “tested”.
  • The charging for licences seems strangely analogous to the Certification scams long foisted on the Scrum community (and, indirectly, its clients) : “Pay us for even the very opportunity to be exploited.”


It’s all about the dollar, baby.
“Most [sex workers] actually become numb to it. They begin to view sex as a very emotionless thing. Most prostitutes will do anything but kiss on the mouth.”
Of course, I’m not trying for one moment to equate the travails of sex prostitution with the much more cosy and comfortable prostitution of Agile Coaching, Scrum Mastering, Agile Consulting, Agile Development, etc.. But when the practices and/or outcomes are so doubtful (or even distasteful), why else do it, except for the money? And yes, I know the justifications trotted-out in defence of this sorry situation:
  • Everyone has to make a living, somehow.
  • Some of the ‘Johns’ (like the development team members) do enjoy the experience, at least in the short-term.
  • Most jobs are some form of prostitution.
  • Even folks who are not paid money for their work, or who are unemployed, prostitute themselves in other ways.
These all seem like pretty thin excuses, to me.

Kinky Clients

When money is the primary motivation, then is it also true that anything goes? If the client asks for “strange or weird” things – that is, strange and weird (not to mention distasteful) from the Agile perspective – should we accede graciously, cavil but comply, or refuse altogether? Where to draw the line? Can we even draw any kind of line, when it’s all about the dollar, baby?

Exploitation or Symbiosis?

Some folks say that sex prostitution exploits women (the workers). Some say it exploits men (the clients). Most regard it as regrettable. Many regard it (for example, the Germans) as necessary. Nearly everyone chooses not to talk or think about it much, if at all. You’re probably quietly cursing me for even mentioning it. Again, where’s the line between exploitation and symbiosis?

What’s Wrong with Prostitution, Anyway?

My back-of-a-fag-packet definition of prostitution is “any activity that would not normally be undertaken in circumstance of choice, free will and mutual consent.” How many Agile Coaches, Consultant, Scrum Masters, etc, can honestly say they would be servicing their current clients were it not for the money? There are some, I know. And fair (e.g. consensual) exchange is no robbery, after all.

This post lays out the whole thorny question quite well, I think.

Maybe one distinction in the case of things Agile is the nature of the (implicit) contract underpinning the exchange: The Agilist will serve the client, including their kinky requirements, in exchange for money – and, more importantly, for the opportunity to make a positive difference (e.g. to folks’ lives). When the latter element is removed, or fails to materialise, or turns out to be an empty promise, then the implicit contract degenerates into a simpler time-for-money equation, which may negate the fairness from the perspective on one – or even, both – parties. Put another way, when do the noble aims and aspirations of things Agile cross some invisible line and degenerate into “base and unworthy use”? My contention is that this happens all too often.


Whether or not we each choose to regard Agile Coaching, Scrum Mastering, Consulting and Development as prostitution, or as something else, a special place in Hell is reserved for the pimps. You know who I mean. The unsavoury, coercive, sociopathic types that find the clients for their (own – and owned) workers, and take their – generally, considerable – cut. As long as the money’s coming in, as long as the clients are not complaining to the police, as long as the workers keep grinding away, and as long as society continues to look the other way, they’re in clover.

Further Reading

The Ethics of Prostitution

– Bob

How to Spot a Lemon Consultant

A Lorra, Lorra Lemons

In my time I have seen a lot of lemons. And I have seen a lot of companies hire or engage with lemons – almost always unwittingly. Actually, I can’t believe how ineffective some of these folks and suppliers have been. And let’s face it, there’s a lorra, lorra lemons out there.

Following on from my recent “Better Customers” post, I though it might offer some value to share some tips on how to spot these lemons.

The Lemon Consultant


The Lemon Consultant is most often a pinstripe- or blue-suited individual – through its colouration and demeanour attempting to appear native amongst the local dominant fauna.

The Lemon Consultant strides purposefully from place to place, exuding faux-charm and confidence in an effort to attract its prey. Juveniles are similar to adults except the suits are cheaper and the veneer of confidence thinner, with a tinge of bluster.

Lemon Consultants prefer to congregate in flocks, for security and mutual support, although solitary individuals are also sometimes seen in the wild.

Range and Habitat

Lemon Consultants prefer surrounding of glass, steel and laminate, and favour smaller, private spaces over the open savannah. They are common in urban and suburban areas especially where large budgets are predominant.

Throughout the summer Lemon Consultants can be found in most of the major conurbations across the Northern Hemisphere. In North America: from southern Canada, down through the United States to the Mexican border. There are small pockets of Lemon Consultants as far west as Washington State. In Europe: preferring temperate climes, they are fewer in Scandinavia and Mediterranean  countries, with a significant population in the British Isles.

They are partially migratory with some migrating and others not. Some Lemon Consultants migrate quarterly, but always preferring to stay in one place for as long as their food source remains plentiful.

Nesting Habits

Like Mourning Doves, Lemon Consultants often take over other’s nests, at least temporarily. Failing that, and like the Black-headed Grosbeak, Lemon Consultants are known to steal parts and pieces of others’ nests to construct their own. In settled (non-migratory) situations, Lemon Consultant prefer a burrow or other cosy corner where they can keep out of sight whilst preening.

Feeding and Watering

Whilst Lemon Consultants are omnivorous, they prefer hard cash up front. When such pickings are scarce, they often settle for an hourly rate. They have been known to travel incredible distances from their breeding grounds to their preferred feeding sites. Avaricious and self-serving, the Lemon Consultant concerns itself predominantly with feeding.

Lemon Consultants do a wonderful job of regurgitating ideas from other sources, although generally poisoning the seeds and causing the resulting crop of ideas to be stunted and malodorous.


The Lemon Consultant is a very vocal bird. It often has a strident, even whining note, although some few have a lilting, musical overtone. They make a number of different calls including its distinctive “deliver-cost-urgency”. It growls when it’s irritated, and chatters when it’s not. The Lemon Consultants has whistles and gurgling sounds in its repertoire as well.


The Lemon Consultant is often both aggressive and territorial. Group of Lemon Consultants will attack intruders and other Consultants that move into their territory, although they take great pains to avoid overt conflicts, preferring stealth and subversion to direct assaults.

If the weather is mild and the food plentiful, Lemon Consultants may winter over in their breeding grounds. But when they do migrate, they form loose flocks of around 3 to 12 traveling only during hours of darkness.


The lesser-known Lemon Agile Consultant can be distinguished from its more common brethren by its naivety, good-naturedness, and a fondness for making grandiose claims about the benefits of Agile software development whilst making no mention of the risks, costs, or the scale of changes required throughout adopting organisations.

The Lemon Agile Consultant is also very fond of Powerpoint presentations featuring cutesy child-like artwork and banal, empty platitudes; specious and tiresome “games”; often carries copious amounts of Lego; and repeats words like “fun”, “fairies” and “the power of stories” ad-nauseam.

Their song varies subtly from their common cousins, their most distinctive calls including “fun-clap-fun”, “more-value-less-waste” and “time-to-market”. Listen to the song of the Lemon Agile Consultant: Sound Bites: Lemon Agile Consultant, National Twat Service

Lemon Agile Consultants frequently borrow ideas from primary sources, but often out of context, and having grasped the wrong end of the stick. Their attribution of sources is rare to non-existant.

The Lemon Agile Consultant enjoys playing, and wants to play in your sandpit, with your money and your resources. Their gregarious nature means they love to rope-in as many of your people as possible, regardless of the distraction and disruption this causes. Outcomes rarely hold their interest for long, if at all.


Recognising Lemon Agile Consultants amongst the general fauna is relatively simple. Ask direct questions like:

  • What’s most likely to happen when we roll agile out across the whole development group?
  • How will adopting Agile impact on other groups within the organisation?
  • What will we have to do to realise the promised benefits of Agile over the longer term (i.e. beyond 9-15 months)?
  • What are the key elements for ensuring our investment in Agile is sustainable and does not dissipate when e.g. early sponsors and champions leave the organisation?
  • How have Agile adoptions turned-out in other organisations? Well? Badly? What’s the typical success rate, longer-term? What are the likely pitfalls?
  • Is Agile suited here? Are there approaches other than Agile that can meet our needs as well or better?
Note: The nature of the answers are less important than having answers. The typical Lemon Agile Consultant will struggle, both with understanding the very questions, and in finding convincing answers.

Further Resources


Avoiding Lemon Consultants may seem like a difficult challenge, and for the uninitiated it can be. But with just a little awareness, a little patience to pass them by, and a few simple rules of thumb, it gets much easier.  And if life throws you one or more of these Lemon Consultants? Don’t bother even trying to made lemonade. Lemon squash, maybe.

– Bob

Better Customers

To do better, we need better customers, better clients. More demanding discerning. Less gullible.

Customers that demand value for money, not billable hours.

Customers that see the value in meeting the needs of all the Folks That Matter.

Customers that refuse to pay for crap.

Customers that reject specious claims and vacuous promises.

Customers that disrupt the cosy hegemony of the technical experts.

Customers that push back against complex and expensive non-solutions.

Customers that push through the embarrassment of failure to call suppliers to account.

Customers that understand THEIR customers, and look for partners that want to help them in that.

Customers who see the value in both trust and evidence, whilst rejecting faith-based arguments.

Customers that buy on criteria other than lowest (ticket) price.

Customers that embrace the human element in the world of business.

Customers that understand their own strengths – and their weaknesses, and act accordingly.

Customers that share the laurels of success, and share responsibility for failure too.

There are so many folks that WANT to do better, but desperately need the support of their customers to do so. Without better customers, the reforms and improvements we long for will indeed take a long time in coming.

– Bob

P.S. What are you doing each day to be a better customer – both as part of your organisation, and as an individual – to your suppliers?

Agile Blogging

This’ll be a short but sweet post to explain my current approach to blogging.

Subscribers and other regular readers will have noticed that, for some blog posts, I have taken to publishing early drafts well before the post is in any kind of “finished” state.

I’m trialling this approach with the following hopes:

  • I hope this will encourage me to get started on topics which I feel will take some extended writing effort (this in itself a limbering-up for even more extended writing effort in the form of a book). In the past I have parked such posts and rarely got round to completing and publishing them.
  • I hope that early publication will encourage readers to comment and feel they can influence the direction of the “finished” post – so far this has been a mixed bag.
  • I hope it exemplifies the Agile ethos of “deliver early, deliver often”, “provide early value for customers” and “get a Minimum Viable Product” out into the market, and garnering feedback on e.g. demand, as soon as possible.
  • It reflects my need for meaningful connection with people, in that maybe readers will be more likely to engage with the topic whilst the post remains incomplete and open for mutual learning and evolution of its content.
I’l be delighted to hear if you think this approach has merits (or not).
– Bob

Better Business

I have for many years held the view (as formalised in my Rightshifting work)  that most businesses operate at a small fraction of their potential. Or put another way, they are wasting a great deal (on average circa 80%) of their time, effort, ingenuity, etc., on doing the “wrong things”. By which I mean things that add no value from the customer’s point of view.

This is particularly the case for knowledge-work businesses, a relatively new class of business and one in which common management assumptions, practices and principles – what Ackoff calls “the Analytic mindset” – actively encourage and perpetuate significant dysfunctions. There is much evidence, both anecdotal and formal, to validate this view.

Rather than rant about the present sorry state of affairs, I thought I’d make a constructive suggestion about a different perspective on business – one more congruent with effective, high-performing knowledge-work organisations, and a perspective – what Buckminster-Fuller calls “the Synergistic mindset” – with which I myself have had some experience.


What is a business? Wikipedia has a fairly prosaic definition, and not one which I have much time for. Art Kleiner in his book “Who Really Matters – The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success” has a definition much closer to my own view:

According to Art Kleiner, “The customer comes first” is one of the three great lies of the modern corporation. The other two being: “We make our decisions on behalf of the shareholders” and “Employees are our most important asset”.

“What comes first in every organization is keeping the Core Group (normally, most of the top executives) satisfied. Note, Core Groups are not inherently bad or dysfunctional, but rather, necessary – and even the best hope we have for ennobling humanity, since organisations are natural amplifiers of human capability.”

Even more broadly than this, I believe businesses serve a social need, and are an essential part of the fabric of our societies, influencing and influenced by society in equal measure, and serving folks’ need for safety, love/belonging, esteem, and other aspects that Maslow refers to in his “Hierarchy of Needs” (plus the need for social connections, which some folks pedantically argue that Maslow missed out on):

Aside: This is also very congruent with Deming’s First Theorem:

“Nobody gives a hoot about profit.”

The Problem

The Analytic Mindset is very poorly suited to knowledge-work and the knowledge-work business. Why is this so?

In knowledge-work, by definition, people work with their brains, learning, exploring and converting knowledge – often new knowledge – into things of value (i.e. goods, services and the experiences implicit in these things).

Given we are talking about groups of people, and learning, then collaboration and state-of-mind (e.g. engagement, enthusiasm, passion, etc.) count for much more than in other, more traditional kinds of business. (I could make  a case for these things mattering much more than generally appreciated in these other kinds of business too, but I’ll stick with knowledge-work businesses for the purposes of this post).

The Analytic mindset, with its tendency to break things down into parts, and the concomitant creation of functional silos within organisations, has a naturally deleterious effect on collaboration. And the traditional Analytic Management scenario, with managers directing the work and workers actually doing it, has a naturally deleterious effect on folks’ morale, engagement and enthusiasm in their work.

Knowledge-work thrives in the presence of intrinsic motivation. The Analytic perspective, however, prefers the extrinsic motivation best suited to task of manual labour and physical toil. Many studies have shown that attempting to encourage innovation, learning, and creative thinking through extrinsic motivation is not only unproductive, but actually anti-productive, demotivating and misdirected.

As Dan Pink points out in his book “Drive”, effective knowledge-work rests on three principles; Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose – three principles largely discounted, suppressed or entirely eliminated by the Analytic world-view.

Aside: Some folks have pointed out that Dan Pink’s work best relates to individuals and individual motivation, and that some different dynamics come to play in team-work and collaboration environments. There’s an interesting discussion on this in this blog post.

So, to sum up, most knowledge-work businesses are (unwittingly) using a default, inherited model of organisation and direction ill-suited to the kind of work they find themselves doing today – and, incidentally, ill-suited to getting the best out of the kinds of people best-equipped for knowledge-work (i.e. creatives, innovators, and the like).

A Solution

The obvious solution is to find a new model of organisation and direction better suited to the dynamics of knowledge-work and the knowledge-workers. In other word, a new mindset, replacing the ill-fitting Analytic mindset. Various businesses have reported their experiences in this journey of exploration and transition, including:

Aside: If you have any examples you have come across yourself, preferably documented as e.g. case studies or some such, please share.

What Might Such a “New Model” Look Like?

I call this model the “Synergistic mindset”, inspired by the term “Synergy” meaning “two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable”, and by R Buckminster Fuller and his popularisation of the term. Specifically in the case of an organisation, Synergism suggests that two or more people, groups, or teams, working together cans produce results not obtainable by them working independently, and not predictable by the behaviour of them taken separately:

The term synergy was refined by R. Buckminster Fuller, who analyzed some of its implications more fully and coined the term Synergetics.

  • A dynamic state in which combined action is favored over the difference of individual component actions.
  • Behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately, known as emergent behaviour.
  • The cooperative action of two or more stimuli (or drugs), resulting in a different or greater response than that of the individual stimuli.

[Remainder of this section is work in progress]

Fundamental characteristics of this new model include:

  • Customer-orientation
    • Looking outward rather than inwards
    • Understanding demand and the value propositions that attract customers
    • Including stakeholders other than just customers (covalence)
  • Early and repeated releases of working products and services
  • Short feedback cycles / cycle times
  • Use of human-friendly “systems” to reinforce these characteristics…
  • Slack is good
    • cf Reinertsen, Queueing theory 101, Little’s Law, etc.
    • Contributes to sustainable pace
  • Deming’s 95%
  • Pull not push (in all things)
  • Self-organisation and self management (against demand)
    • Not coercive, imposed management aka the Management Factory
  • Evolution and emergence
    • Both in the design of products and service, andI in the way those products get designed and built
    • The way the work works is in a continual state of evolution, emerging through the interaction of the folks doing the work and the demands from customers and other stakeholders.
    • Simple rules / attractors can lead to (desirable) complex emergent behaviours
  • Ownership
    • The folks doing the work own how their work works, as contrasted with e.g.
  • Absence of “managers”
    • The traditional manager role give way to something more like servant leadership or better yet host leadership.
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Shared Purpose
  • Multi-disciplinary teams, and generalising specialists (a.k.a. “cthulhu-shaped people”)
  • Collaboration, rooted in face-to-face conversations and purposeful dialogue
  • Continuous and mutual (joint) learning (self-managed, pull-based, facilitated)
  • Self-discipline (per-individual and per-group)
    • Initiative over permission-seeking
  • Evidence-based
    • Preference for decisions taken on the basis of data, research and practical evidence
  • Collegialism (shared decision-making, mutual support,
    • Harvey (1995a) terms the radical collegialist perspective ‘new collegialism’ and characterises it as involving networking, teamwork, responsiveness, innovation, empowerment, readiness to change, the facilitation of active learning by students and explicit quality criteria. Harvey, 1995a, ‘The new collegialism’, Tertiary Education and Management, 1, pp. 153-60.
  • Ba
  • End-to-end perspective e.g. “concept to cash”, value streams, flow (of value), etc.
  • Systems thinking cf Ackoff
  • Continuous (in-band) improvement
  • Engineering ethos:
    • Love of (appropriate) quality
    • Its implication for both economics and morale
    • How to systematise it

The Agile Connection

Many folks in the Agile community argue that if we apply Agile principles to business as a whole,. things would get better. Given that Agile principles, as appear under the Agile Manifesto, are a subset of the above-listed characteristics:

  • How many folks think that the twelve Agile principles are sufficient?
  • What characteristics appear in the above list that are missing from the twelve Agile principles?
  • How critical are these missing characteristics to making better businesses?


The key challenge to better knowledge-work business is the current collective mindset that prevails in the majority of organisations in the world, compounded by the same mindset as manifest in society globally. Given its ubiquity and longevity both, swapping it out for something more relevant and useful will likely take much time, and require progress on a broad front.

However, progressive organisations that can insulate themselves from the deleterious influences of wider society, and build and cultivate a view of the world of work more suited to knowledge-work can get to it right now. Some indeed are already some way down the road in this “journey to Radicalsville“.

Of course, the more folks that make the journey, the less radical Radicalsville will look.

What do you think?

– Bob

Better Conferences

I’m becoming increasingly dissatisfied with conferences, both as a speaker and as an attendee. Rather than rant about their present format (be that speaker-led, open-space, or what-have-you), I thought I’d make a constructive suggestion about a different format for conferences, a format that I myself would prefer.


Seems to me that the very idea of “Conference” has become detached from its roots:


[kuhn-fur]  verb, -ferred, -fer·ring.

verb (used without object)

  1. to consult together; compare opinions; carry on a discussion or deliberation.

[C16: from Latin conferre  to gather together, compare; from com- together + ferre to bring]

The Problem

Let me start out by describing the problems I have with existing conference formats.

  • Push – Most often, know-how is “pushed” at the participants by people with that know-how, albeit with the best of intentions. Many times these good intentions go awry and create waste:
    • Wasted time for speakers sharing know-how that few if any folks find valuable
    • Wasted time for participants hearing about stuff that lacks relevance for them personally
    • Presentations / lectures being the classic form of “push”
    • This all seems contrary to what we in the Agile and Lean communities have learned about the benefits of “pull”.
  • Not purposeful – Folks generally drift in and out of sessions with little purpose and little idea in advance as to whether a particular session is going to serve their needs  (“fit”). Further, few folks I have met at conferences come with any kind of specific “learning agenda”.
  • Unconscious incompetence – how do folks get to find out what they don’t know, that might be valuable to them in their current situation, or their future? [My thanks to @papachrismatts for this suggestion.]
  • Structure set at the outset – Particularly an issue with open space, where, even though the agenda is co-created at the outset, there is little  or no flexibility in time slots, nor much evolution of the agenda or timing structure after the start.
  • No adjustment to the process/structure during the event. Even within a one-day conference, participants are learning about the format and how it suits them. I would favour a means to encourage and incorporate that learning through ongoing evolution “in flight”.


As I see it, folks participate in conferences to the following ends:

  • To learn (from acquiring a basic awareness of things unknown, through to detailed and specific know-how)
  • To socialise
  • To share (e.g. mutual learning)
  • To proselytise (e.g. to promote ideas)
  • To promote (the profile of oneself or one’s organisation for e.g.commercial purposes)
(And let’s not overlook the organisers’ purpose: whether it’s about community, or more commercial ends).

A Solution

My solution to the above collection of problems and requirements would be to have conferences where:

  • Attendees each have their own “ignorance backlog“, drawn-up in advance, and evolving throughout the conference. For those for whom this might prove a challenge, the conference could and should provide some guidance, in the form of e.g. coaching, in the construction and evolution of this backlog. I for one would be delighted to volunteer for this duty.
  • Knowledge is pulled, on demand, by the attendees, from the pool of available “subject-matter experts”, and in accordance with their “ignorance backlogs”. Given the likely ratio of learners to subject-matter experts, this pulling may necessarily happen in groups, rather than on a one-to-one basis. Although, this format does afford the delicious possibility of allowing anyone (attendees included) to play the part of subject-matter expert in at least some subjects. As Ackoff and others have said, “in the classroom, the teachers is always the one that learns most”. So I posit it would be for the best to encourage non-subject-matter-experts to do as much of the “teaching” as possible.
  • Sessions are organised on-the-fly, with duration, location and participants “pulled” according to availability and priority.
  • The core of the conference organisation task would involve:
    1. Delineating the topic landscape (scope).
    2. Finding the venue, sponsors, etc
    3. Encouraging folks to participate
    4. Cataloguing the expertise present on the day,
    5. Providing the “ba” (spaces where mutual meaning can emerge)
    6. Facilitating the scheduling (times, durations, locations) of the “ba”.
    7. Consolidating the experience via follow-up activities (photos, slides, videos, blogs, etc).


Risks I can envisage include:

  • Folks with knowledge may be reluctant to spend their own coin to particiapte, given that “speakers” often get their expenses reimbursed (and sometimes fees, as well) as part of the “deal” (i.e. in token exchange for sharing their know-how and experiences). I do have some tentative – i.e. not yet well-formed – ideas on how to address this.
  • Folks looking to proselytise or promote their ideas, company or personal brand/celebrity may be unwilling to participate fearing a dilution of their profile. I am less concerned by this, as personally I  dislike being sold to, favouring rather co-learning with like-minded others.
  • Organisations sponsoring their employees to attend conferences in this kind of format may wonder if they’re getting value for money, and may baulk at the unconventional nature of the format. Given the likely much improved outcomes (in terms of participants’ learning, experiences) I suggest this might be an initial hurdle but less of a longer-term issue.
  • Participants coming unprepared/unbriefed for such a format may not get as much out of the conference as they would if skilled in this particular approach.


Let’s not overlook the key role of sponsors and sponsorship in reducing the financial risks inherent in organising conferences, and in making conferences financially viable. I for one understand less than I’d like to about the motivations of sponsors and how – or even if –  their needs can be met by this format.


I’m not going to name this new format. As Ohno said: “Don’t codify method”. Maybe you might consider the advantages of so refraining, also?

Given my proposal of this kind of format as a means for mutual learning (or co-exploration of a topic/topic-set) it might be more suitable to refer to everyone as “participants”, “co-learners” or even “conferrers”, rather than split people up to different categories such as attendees, speakers, etc.

Early Trials

We have trialled some aspects of the proposed format at the various Rightshifting conferences of the past two years. I’d love for folks who attended those events to share their experiences of the format, here.

– Bob

This Shitty Agile Compremise

I think we all feel uneasy about compromise. And yet, so many folks make compromises so often, it also feels like it’s inevitable. Shakespeare noted how distressed folks can become when forced to consider compromise:

O inglorious league!
Shall we, upon the footing of our land,
Send fair-play orders and make compremise,
Insinuation, parley, and base truce
To arms invasive?

~ Will Shakespeare, King John Act 5, scene 1, 65–69

Goldratt, father of Theory of Constraints, is uncompromising in his excoriation of compromise:

The common way to manage conflicts is to struggle with compromise. Yet all contradictions can be resolved without compromise – it’s our level of understanding and our assumptions that hold the contradiction in place. A compromise is not usually a win-win solution.”

~ Eliyahu M Goldratt

Goldratt goes on to describe “Evaporating Clouds” – his method for obviating compromise:

“The Evaporating Clouds method does not strive to reach a compromise solution, rather it concentrates on invalidating the problem itself. The method involves verbalizing the assumptions underlying the problem, and challenging them to find the invalid assumptions.”

Agile Compromise

The Agile Compremise (compromise) of which I write, here, are in fact several:

  1. There’s the  tacit compromise made by business folks who don’t want to understand Agile,  but neither want to demotivate their software folks so much that those folks stop making an effort, or quit entirely.
  2. Then there’s the compromise that developers make in adopting Agile within their own teams, without dealing with the conflicts and dysfunctions arising from their upstream and downstream partners not also adopting agile.
  3. And thirdly, there’s the compromise that whole organisations make in “adopting Agile” but not consequently changing their mindset regarding the world of work – a change that is essential if adopting organisations are to actually reap – sustainably – the promised benefits (e.g. x2, x4, x8 productivity uplift) of the Agile development approach.
I have drawn the Evaporating Clouds for the above three situations, showing the underlying (conflicting) assumptions and some challenges to those assumptions:

Compromise #1: Management Allows But Does Not Embrace

Arrow 1a: In order to have A, we must have B.
Assumption 1a1: People are (more) productive when they have a say in the way the work works.
Challenge: Will our developer productivity decline or fail to improve if we (they, the developers) don’t have a say in the way the work works?
Assumption 1a2: The existence and increasing adoption of Agile across many organisations means our developers have changed their expectations re: the “working contract”.
Challenge: Will our developer productivity decline – or fail to improve – if we (the organisation) fail to accommodate our developers’ changed expectations?
Arrow 1b: In order to have A, we must have C.
Assumption 1b1: Management oversight and control contributes positively to developer productivity.
Challenge: Does management control over the way the work works really contribute positively to developers being productive?
Arrow 1c: In order to fulfil B, we must accept D.
Assumption 1c1: Adopting Agile is the only way to give developers a say in how the work works.
Challenge: Is Agile the only way to provide our developers with a say in the way the work works?
Arrow 1d: In order to fulfil C, we must accept D’.
Assumption 1d1: Management control over the way the work works is fundamentally incompatible with Agile software development.
Challenge: Is this really true? Could we adopt Agile and yet retain management control?

Compromise #2: Agile Remains a Ghetto

I leave this diagram and its assumptions as an exercise for the reader.

Compromise #3: Failure to Realise Any Significant Benefits

I leave this diagram and its assumptions as an exercise for the reader.


Like so many scenarios for compromise, the Agile world is compromising on its goals, ideals and principles, and in doing so is complicit in a lose-lose situation – for itself and for the thousands of organisations it is ostensibly committed to helping.

I posit that we in the Agile community have the responsibility to recognise our complicity in this lose-lose situation. And, given we have more awareness about the situation and its issues than the business folks, it behoves us to reach out and involve them in evaporating the clouds of invalid assumptions that underly these ugly compromises.

– Bob

Why Directors Should Give a Damn About Culture

In this short opinion piece, John Bell, ex-CEO of Jacobs Suchard, echoes my own opinion on the role of culture in business performance:

“Culture is one of the most important determinants of business performance.”

~ John Bell

In my own vernacular, and as a (much humbler) ex-CEO myself, this translates one-for-one to:

“Organisational mindset is one of [if not the] most important determinants of organisational effectiveness.”

~ Bob Marshall

– Bob

Society and the Analytic Mindset

As you may know by now, I assert that effectiveness of knowledge-work organisations is a function of their several “collective organisational mindsets”. In other words:

Effectiveness = f(mindset)

The collective mindset of any organisation is profoundly yet imperceptibly influenced by the collective mindset of the wider society within which it operates.

All Things are Connected

In “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, David Bohm talks about cosmology and the nature of reality. I’m not going into that today, but I mention it just to illustrate that the idea that all things are connected is a recurring theme across many disciplines. It is a common idea in Eastern philosophies, such as Zen, with the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination” (Pratītyasamutpāda). That all things are connected is an idea profoundly at odds with the reductionism inherent in the Analytic Mindset.

The Analytic Mindset does not exist in isolation, in the minds of individuals or even groups. Rather, the Analytic mindset exists as part of the fabric of all our lives, and of organisations and society both.

Let’s take a look at how that came about.


Ackoff defines the Analytic Mindset as:

“Breaking things down into parts, on the assumption that understanding the parts individually allows understanding of the whole.”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

For centuries, indeed millennia, this point of view has been at the heart of the Scientific Method.

“In the analytic tradition of Aristotle there are all the logicians and a large part of the physicists of today. Galilei, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein are thinkers of the analytic tradition. A large part of Western culture and technology is founded in this [way of thinking].

~ Carlos Cirne-Lima

Ever since Sir Isaac Newton (some may say, ever since Aristotle), society has come to believe that the Analytic way of thinking is the best way, indeed many might say the only way, of looking at our problems.

“Regrettably, most of us still cling to the truths of 17th century science, fostered primarily by the teachings of Sir Isaac Newton. Although very helpful in catalysing industrial and technological advances, this worldview has severely constrained many aspects of our humanity and impoverished our life experiences.”

 ~ Mel Schwartz

Yet modern science – and traditions other than Western reductionism – offer us alternative ways of thinking and seeing the world and its challenges.

The Three Steps of Analytical Thinking:

  1. Take “it” apart
  2. Understand what the parts do
  3. Assemble the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole
Relying on these three steps (as much of the whole world has learned, explicitly or implicitly, to do) will not help us answer many of the important questions about systems. It’s time to learn to see things differently.

Science Has Moved On

In her excellent book “Leadership and the New Science” Margaret Wheatley writes:

“In science, the beginning of the twentieth century heralded the end of the hegemony of Newtonian [analytic] thinking.”

~ Margaret Wheatley

She then goes on to talk about what she calls “Newtonian despair” – the feelings of fatigue and impatience brought about by trying to tackle interrelated, inter-twined (“wicked”) problems as though they were separate, and amenable to independent resolution.

I see this “Newtonian despair” everywhere I look, from the issues facing individual software developers and teams, all the way to the wicked problems facing governments and societies, globally.


Much of society’s collective mindset is shaped by folks’ formative experiences within the education system.

“The current system of education was designed and conceived for a different age.”

~ Sir Ken Robinson

Education, since the inception of compulsory public education for all some one hundred and forty years ago (UK), has prepared pupils as either smart, intellectual “executive” scholars and academics,  or for a productive (and compliant) role as cogs in the machines of the industrial revolution. (See e.g. Sir Ken Robinson’s animated RSA presentation).

Into the Workforce

“The system of education is modelled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it.”

~ Sir Ken Robinson

By the time folks finish education, they have learned through experience – and osmosis – many of the fundamental assumptions integral to the Analytic mindset. They then join the workforce, where these same assumptions have “flourished” and compounded since the very dawn of the industrial age.

The Analytic mindset has a near monopoly in the corporations and government bureaucracies of our “modern” world. And like the monkeys with the banana, folks working in these organisation have little or no knowledge of the original conditions that led to the rules and procedures to which, and by which, they find themselves bound.

Some psychotherapists attribute “the epidemic of anxiety, depression and general disconnectedness that engulfs us [society]” to the “analytic, reductive and mechanistic” worldview.


“There is no objective “organisation”. The “reality” we experience does not exist “out there”… it is co-created through our acts of observation, what we choose to notice and worry about.”

~ Karl Weick

The Analytic mindset is so ubiquitous, pervasive and common-place in society, and thus in our organisations, that folks rarely if ever even notice it, let alone question it.

Organisations do not operate in a vacuum. They recruit people from society at large, thus importing a bias towards the Analytic mindset with every new hire. Some organisations, like Zappos, recognise this explicitly and take great pains to try to offset this bias. These new hires may have been in the workforce for some time – having absorbed the Analytic view of work from their previous work experiences (most organisations see the world of work through an Analytic lens). Or they may be new to the world of work, yet still steeped in the Analytic mindset via their experiences at school, and through popular culture (films, TV, books, newspapers, conversations, etc.). In any case, with each new hire into a Synergistic-minded organisation, the synergistic view can be diluted, eventually reaching a tipping point where the organisation reverts to an Analytic perspective. I’m sure you can think of high-profile examples where this has happened.

Rarely do the folks caught in these regressions (a.k.a. reverse transitions) recognise what is happening to them and their organisation. In most cases, the progressive, effective folks bemoan the loss of the “soul” of their organisation, and sooner or later quit for pastures new. (Before quitting, these folks’ engagement and commitment generally tail off precipitously).

And every day, popular culture and the pontifications of vested interests and self-promoting analytic thinkers, executives, consultants, authors, etc. serve to reinforce the Analytic world view, and confound other mindsets, in thousands of organisations across all domains of business. charity, the military, the Church, etc..

Swimming Against the Tide

For organisations making serious efforts to better themselves and improve their effectiveness, the Analytic mindset is like a continuous ebb tide, slowing down their progress towards a different, more conducive view of the world of work, and continuously dragging them back towards the mean (sic) Analytic mindset.


In all fields of organised endeavour, the subtle, imperceptible bias of the Analytic mindset, simply by virtue of its near-ubiquity, causes a continual “reversion to mediocrity“. Without recognising this phenomenon, organisations of every stripe risk erosion or collapse of their hard-won right-shifts of effectiveness and mindset.

– Bob


The Analytic-synthetic Distinction (Philosophy)
The Tragedy of the Social Epistemology Commons (Blog post on LessWrong)
The Analytic-Synergistic Transition 
(Earlier Think Different blog post)

On the Morality of Dissent

 “I want you to get MAD. You’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being goddamit! My life has meaning!’

…I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

~ Howard Beale

[See the video clip]


A long, long time ago, Shakespeare wrote:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”

A question with which I struggle on an almost daily basis.

As I have mentioned before, I am driven by the inordinate waste of human potential in typical “knowledge-work” businesses – waste, in large part, due to what Rightshifting calls the “Analytic Mindset“.

I don’t know who discovered water,
but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish

~ Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980),
media critic & writer

The Analytic mindset is so ubiquitous, pervasive and common-place that, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, I don’t know who discovered the Analytic Mindset, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an Analytic thinker (which is most of the planet’s population).

Planting Trees

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” ~ Nelson Henderson

I wish to see things change, and I do what I can to plant seedlings under which, in time, folks may take some shade. In working towards common goals alongside other folks, conflict is inevitable, particularly when world-views collide. And like Patrick Lencioni I believe that positive conflict is essential in making progress.

I do not enjoy conflict, hence I am conflicted. One might fairly call that cognitive dissonance. :}

The truth is never pure and rarely simple – Oscar Wilde

Nevertheless, I take heart from the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in particular:

The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I also try to keep in mind the principles of tolerance, equanimity and mutual learning implicit in Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive, which I have reinterpreted more generally as:
Regardless of what is said, I understand and truly believe that everyone is doing the best they can, given what they know, how they see the world, the handicaps of their experiences, and the situation at hand.

If You See Buddha On the Road, Kill Him

Given the oft-repeated suggestion that

“Folks should think for themselves, in context”

then dissent seems not only inevitable, but

’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

I for one applaud folks who stick their necks out and share the way they see the world, however differently that might be, just so long as it doesn’t get personal.

In summary, I believe we all have a duty to dissent. Compliance and conformation merely lends support to the status quo.

What do you think?

– Bob

See Also

Dare to Disagree (blog post)


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