Self organizing systems need provocation

July 5, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational culture, Out of my mind, Scrum and agile, Software Engineering | Leave a comment

While reading a book yesterday, I came across an interesting statement “There is a need for provocation in any self organizing system; otherwise the system gets stuck in a local equilibrium”. It set me thinking about its implications. How true it is can be seen in a few examples below.

In software development, we have two methodologies which follow a very different approach.

  • In waterfall development, there is a lot of stress on defining things in detail up-front and relies heavily on measurements and corrective actions to keep things as per plan and standards. This provides necessary provocation for the subsystems as it tries to keep the system towards defined equilibrium. However, there is no reality check with what the customer really wants now. We need the provocation to disturb the equilibrium so that we do not keep going too far off the reality.
  • On the other hand, in agile development frequent customer collaboration provides required collaboration between what is being developed with what is needed. However, there is much less stress on measurements and process checks. This may adversely affect schedule, quality and cost.

If we can take the good provocations from one methodology and fit them into the other, we may possibly have a much better system which gets corrected on both dimensions.

We see such imbalances in the organizations as well. Some rely heavily on measurements and audits, are heavily process driven and neglect the provocations provided by effective collaboration between the individuals within and across teams and groups. Other organizations rely too much on people and are reluctant to have audits & measurements assuming that they interfere with freedom to be innovative and creative. If we allow processes and standards to provide their provocations as well as let people (who respect the processes and standards) have their interactions the resulting benefits will be better than the either.

Lastly, it is applicable to all of us individuals as well. Any challenge to our assumptions and beliefs puts us on the defensive. Our ego may even get hurt. But what if we welcome such provocations and reassess our assumptions / beliefs / habits? We may become much better persons and even enjoy it.

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