The Great Circle

This article was initially going to be something of a rant, it still might go that way. Neil Killick recently tweeted how he loved the honesty of a good rant and there should be more of them (or words to that effect). Inspired I tweeted back that he wouldn’t have to wait long. Sorry Neil, not this time, although the chances now rise of the next blog being rant driven (of course your definition of rant might be fulfilled by this article).

Recently I’ve been musing how things can circle around in unexpected ways. How themes can, and often do circle around until you see that a link has been formed. Multiple pieces of information, each unique in their own way but somehow morphing from linear fact or opinion to smoothly join to another formerly linear slice of wisdom. Eventually they weld to form a nice solid shape that hangs in your consciousness. A shape that increases your knowledge in a useful and meaningful way.

In a previous blog entry I mentioned “Obliquity” by John Kay and it’s main line of thought. I think I might have said that it is a sensational book. If I didn’t then let me say, it is a truly sensational book. If I’ve already said as much, well, it’s worth repeating.  I’m currently reading Dan Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us“. This is also an amazing book. I have to force myself to put it down to do other things (like work).

In recent times I’ve had a series of discussions with people (they are all managers) where we largely discussed approaches to people management and motivation. In summary, just to keep this article brief, command and control is alive and well. Much like ISTQB, command and control seems to have a level of acceptance that it should not have. In actual use they have roughly the same relevance and not nearly enough people questioning why or looking for better approaches. That’s a little depressing. Managers want staff that produce sparkling software that makes clients happy, on tight lead times and they want to control them, within an inch of their lives, to that delivery. They want to control the solution creation rather than trust people to do what they were hired to do. They have a management goal, delivery on time, on budget, all agreed features delivered (to add some perspective here, those features were agreed months in advance). The managers are directly attacking a problem that is complex and has multiple flexing parts. This is simply not optimal. That’s not obliquity in action. Obliquity would require us to tackle smaller problems, experiment, build small blocks, ask questions, be flexible and not assume we can charge directly at the final prize. Is anyone else thinking Agile?

Clearly Dan Pink and “Drive” forms another part of the circle. I don’t want to spoil what is a very good book so I’m not going to dive in too deeply. This book spends some time exploring the impacts of extrinsic motivation (carrot and stick) and intrinsic motivation (the joy of just doing something). The notion of intrinsic motivation is, relatively speaking, new. The book asserts intrinsic motivation is not well understood or incorporated by Management in general. My personal experience leads me to agree strongly. This is overwhelmingly true for most managers I’ve dealt with (note I didn’t say all). One of the really interesting things in Drive is the relationship between extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation and knowledge work. I’m going to suggest that software development is very much in the knowledge work domain. Consider the following extracts from Drive (the term “third drive” refers to intrinsic motivation)

“Human beings, Deci said, have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.” But this third drive was more fragile than the other two; it needed the right environment to survive. “One who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students, etc., should not concentrate on external-control systems such as monetary rewards.”


Lakhani and Wolf uncovered a range of motives, but they found “that enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver.”


“Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation,” they determined. “When institutions— families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams, for example— focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior,” they do considerable long-term damage.

Both Dan Pink and John Kay are learned men. Their books are heavily supported by credible research, findings of others that are recognised a leaders in their fields. Why the hell is Management not keeping up with the knowledge that is available, why are they not taking in what science has already established? People are entitled to expect better (do Management not expect their people to “continuously improve”?). Is it that hard to trust someone to do the job they were hired to do? Can teams, team members, not be trusted to follow their  intrinsic motivation (their third drive) and produce innovative approaches, dynamic, joy making solutions for customers. Just perhaps we need new Managers. Ones that will provide the required freedom that intrinsic motivation requires to work at its best. Perhaps we need Managers that would never ask people to “think outside the box” because that means they already acknowledge that their people are already “in the box”. Perhaps we need Managers that do not tell people to “feel empowered” because just by saying that they acknowledge that the standard status is “you’re not empowered”.

The “almost last part of this circle” comes from a book The Critical Thinking Toolkit: Spark Your Team’s Creativity with 35 Problem Solving Activities  by Marlene Caroselli. I plan to run weekly activities with the agile team I belong to. This book has some great activities. A quote that really took my fancy:

Imagination is what takes vision out of its tunnel.

Then I found something that really disturbed me:

“…….a famous longitudinal study of creative potential followed a group of students over a 17-year period. The same test was administered each time to these students. When the students were five years old, 92% of them were found to be “very creative.” By age ten, that figure had dropped to 37%. When the children were fifteen, they were tested again. At this age, the number of children deemed “very creative” had dropped to 12%. Finally, the same students were tested in college. How many were found to be “very creative” at this age? Only 2%!”

We are actively killing creativity at work through bad management and also killing it before our children get out of school. That really is something to think about.

Perhaps it is time we start consistently thinking about “circling” to solutions for complex problems. Give up treating them as 100 meter sprints. In a 100 meter sprint you want to go direct, you want to break the tape first. But that direct approach is fine, this is not a complex problem. Your mission is to run as fast as possible, get there first. However if someone decided to trap that 100 meters with lasers, explosive devices, snipers, and the like, would you still think direct or would you be a little more creative and oblique?

One last thing, a personal experience. Last week I put a critical thinking exercise on the team whiteboard and also a copy in a more central location for others. Within 60 seconds of noting that I’d placed a problem on the board 3 team members went over there and started collaborating on a solution. No prompting, no requirement to do this, no prize on offer, but they did it any way and worked until it was solved. Just chance? I don’t think so. I actually think that it is a very powerful demonstration.

That’s enough from me. Thanks for dropping by. I hope to see you again.





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