“Flatland”, a novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, describes a world that exists in 2 dimensions. The male inhabitants of this world are polygons while the females are a single line. The main character is a square in this world. One day the square is visited by a being from another world. The visitor is a sphere from a 3-dimensional world. The sphere appears as a circle in the 2D world. However, as the sphere moves in and out of the 2D world its size grows and diminishes. The story goes on to tell how the Square’s mind is blown when Sphere takes him into the 3D world.
Square is initially unable to comprehend the nature of Sphere while it existed in the 2D world. Try as he might his mental models and his ability to describe Sphere were limited by the limitations of his own world.
It’s not just in Abbott’s imagination where we see how the limitation of existing models constrains how the world is interpreted. The natives of Papua New Guinea were mystified as goods arrived by aeroplane to their islands. They had no previous exposure to aeroplanes, therefore they assumed that the goods were gifts from the gods. To continue their good fortune, they created bamboo aeroplanes believing this would bring further good providence. These became known as cargo cults.
Organisations have cultures too. Many invest heavily in developing their cultures while others happen more accidentally. Regardless of how that culture was developed it is a limitation on how new ideas and concepts can be interpreted and assimilated.
Imagine, if we work in a hierarchical organisation, then the concepts of self-organising teams will not be comprehensible in the same way as the cargo cults in Papua New Guinea could not conceptualise an aeroplane.
The typical reactions to self-organisation from the lens of a team member in a hierarchical structure are:
- That will never work!
- How will everyone know what to work on?
- How will we keep the pressure on?
- Surely people will slack off!
These responses are all based on their current culture. Once we realise that our existing culture effects our interpretation of new ideas, we can pause and reflect and reframe the concept.
- What is it about our current culture that would inhibit that working?
- How can we understand more about that idea?
- Where can we get more exposure?
When we try to adopt new ways of working such as Scrum or Kanban, not only do we need to copy the practices, but we also need to understand the principles behind those practices to ensure we have an effective implementation. Having the dev team stand up every morning and recite the “yesterday I did” mantra to an expectant manager misses the principle of creating a plan for the day. So yes, we might have copied all of the meetings but that doesn’t make it an effective process. Building an effigy of a plane out of sticks will not make it fly.
But how will you know any different? Just like Square, our concepts are limited by the culture in which we reside. We might excuse our limitations by explaining “that will never work in the real world” and, based on our limited sample size of one, that might be a reasonable assumption. But it’s not. Just like Square, we need to break out because somewhere out there is a Sphere or Cube who is making it work.
Things you can do:
- If you’ve been working in the same place for a few years then it’s important to ask yourself if you are constrained by the culture in which you are accustomed. Perhaps it’s time to gain some fresh perspectives. Try this:
- Write down all of the constraints and rules that you follow now.
- Sort them into hard constraints (eg, complying with anti-bribery policies) and perceived constraints (eg, all projects need a 150-page initiation document).
- Pick one that represents a lot of work for limited benefit, and see if you can change it. You might be surprised by how easily the door swings open.
- There are many opportunities for meeting people from different organisations who are trying alternative ways of working. Try to attend Meetups and conferences covering a variety of topics.
- Discover different ideas (books, blogs). A good way to see how far the rabbit hole goes is to read one book from the bibliography of each book you read.
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