Photo by Frida Bredesen on Unsplash

It has begun: The War For Agile20Reflect

Many observers predicted that the problems endemic in the Agile community would be a powerful influence on any attempt to understand and improve the Agile community. Now that they’ve been proven right, the question is what we are going to do about it. But before we can plan our way out of the maze, we need a map of the maze.

Fuel: Pre-existing feuds

One of the problems that we are facing is the fact that many people have had painful previous experiences with each other. Two of the people who have been very vocal in the planning process are people that I’ve had removed from projects that I was working on (I told the boss ‘you need to get rid of this person’ and it was actioned): this has contributed to a fair amount of anxiety on my part. It’s not just that I’m scared they might hold a grudge, I’m also scared that the reason I had them removed from that other project is going to be a reason they should be removed from this project.

And then you have the big names who have been slagging each other off for ages, and whose ability to refrain from slagging each other off is being tested. These pre-existing feuds provide ample fuel, and they have been ignited by two complaints.

The first front: Commercial interests

The first battle to start (that is not yet resolved) has been on the topic of whether the Agile20Reflect event should accept gifts from people who have a commercial interest in the outcomes. On the side of ‘we should accept gifts’ is Dave Snowden (who has offered his SenseMaker tool to the event) and myself (who has been itching for a chance to play with SenseMaker for ages). On the opposing side, some people that I disagree with and don’t know terribly well.

My perception of ‘accept gifts’ is that it’s a pragmatic, sensible view. My initial view of ‘don’t accept gifts’ is that it’s a naive view, but that’s a value-laden term. It might be fairer to call that view ‘aspirational’.

The skirmish: A space for rudeness

A short-lived battle was fought regarding the idea of a ‘space for rudeness’, it needs a little background. Pierre Neis and I met at the 2019 Requisite Agility conference in New York, and we disagreed about a lot of things. We also thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, and he has a mildly incriminating photo of me from a bar in Hell’s Kitchen that he likes to taunt me with at times. There was something wonderfully liberating about being able to be thoroughly drunk, call each other names, and hug. During a brief lull in the fighting, we jointly decided that it would be nice to have a space within Agile20Reflect where we could call each other names and then hug. We also thought it would be a good idea to invite others into that space.

We didn’t coordinate our messaging very well, and those members of the community who weren’t horrified by the idea (as presented) maintained a dignified silence. I did a bunch of damage control work, assuring people that they wouldn’t be called names (or hugged) unless they opted in.

The idea that we can all be nice to each other all the time, I will label ‘aspirational’, since the people who opposed the ‘space for rudeness’ also have a tendency to post inspirational poetry to the ‘#poetry-and-stuff’ Slack channel. I’ll describe my side of that conflict as ‘pragmatic’, since it’s about accepting some badness (calling people names) in service of some goodness (hugs and a release of tension).

The second front: Dispute resolution

Dave Snowden knows how to wield the rhetorical knife, and he explains how he was trained (and some interesting knife-wielding techniques) in this video. In the video, he describes some of the things he has done when debating as cruel, and it’s clear that he takes an amount of satisfaction from luring people into traps when presenting an argument. At the same time, I think it’s clear that he sincerely wants good things for the community: sharing an understanding of rhetoric is a service to others who might choose to engage in debates. Let’s label that ‘pragmatic’.

Meanwhile, Daniel Mezick has a view of how to solve disputes that is more aspirational. When interviewed, he’s a wonderfully friendly presence. But there are reasons to be uneasy with what he’s saying: he talks about how he completely revises his worldview every five years. And it’s unclear as to whether the ‘invitation’ concept is supposed to be a panacea, or whether he has a strategy. Let’s label that ‘aspirational’.

This time, the question is about “How should we solve problems that arise in the group?” Dave and I have both put forward, specific technical proposals for how the problem might be solved. Others have preferred to focus on assessments of “What would success look like?” People are responding to Dave with fear (and would be responding to me with fear if I wasn’t terrified of frightening people, therefore desperately attempting to find a unifying perspective). Meanwhile, leading members of the ‘aspirational’ faction are creating new Slack channels in an attempt to solve the problem of ‘we have too many Slack channels’: this does not inspire me with confidence that they have the skills to solve our communication problems.

Understanding the factions more deeply

There are some other things that Dave and I agree about. I have argued that Agile is dead. Dave has argued that Agile20Reflect should be conducted as a wake.

And we have similar influences, too. We’ve conducted negotiations where lives are at stake, and have worked with military and medical people on communication issues. (Dave on a far more impressive and impactful scale than myself.) The impression I have of the ‘aspirational’ faction is that they are much more firmly rooted in civilian life experiences and attitudes.

On the battlefield, emotions have the potential to get you killed: they are a danger in their own right. In civilian life, emotions are our primary guide towards personal truth and virtue. In military life, discipline is the guide that leads to survival. Military mindsets (like mine, and I think Dave’s) tend to be offended by uselessness. Civilian mindsets (like the majority of Agilists) tend to be offended by callousness. As we lose trust for each other and retreat into our default mindsets, we become less able to communicate with each other.

The fundamental nature of controversy

A previous analysis I did for the medical community seems relevant to controversy in general.

So, to generalize, controversies will persist when:

- Both sides of the argument have a defensible point of view

- The existence of an opposing view is perceived as threatening by (some of the) people on both sides of the argument

- Both sides have a continuing supply of evidence to support their view

I feel that these criteria are met, and that the controversy will never be resolved. The pragmatic school and the aspirational school will never unify their perspectives, because there will always be evidence that the pragmatic people don’t care enough about feelings, and there will always be evidence that the aspirational school is messy and undisciplined.

However, even when there is an ongoing controversy, agreements can often be reached in terms of specific operational matters. The tactical obstacle is not the same as the strategic obstacle.

Incompatible language

One of the poorly-documented predictions of my cognitive layering theory is that ‘when a dispute is conducted on multiple cognitive layers, it cannot be resolved’. The aspirational school loves to talk in terms of poetry, visions, and feelings (layer 5). The pragmatic school loves to talk in terms of specific operational targets and measures (layer 3). I am convinced that there is no prospect of an agreement unless we start speaking the same language.

A way forward

Layer 5 is the ‘definitive’ layer, where you work out what your concept of the world is and who you are. Layer 3 is the ‘optimizing’ layer, where you can fine-tune your operational performance. Layer 4 is the ‘integrating’ layer, and it is concerned with ‘desire’ and where the concept at play is ‘language itself’.

The questions I think we need to be asking and answering are “What do you mean?” and “What do you want?” and “Which direction do you want to take?” Once people have said what kind of thing they want (I suspect that both sides want “An opportunity to take part without having to be scared”) then we might actually make some progress.

Shall we see how it goes?

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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