The voice of business architecture. And more.

Agile, Oil, and Water

In my experience, enterprises say they want agility, but they have so little trust that they have to micromanage everything and then make excuses for it. These are the same people who dissect the geese who lay golden eggs and then complain that they aren’t producing eggs.

Podcast: Audio version of this page content

I don’t often have topics that cross over my interest in business and business architecture with philosophy, admittedly my first love. In this case, I can apply my worldview pertaining to cerebral hemisphere differences to business. If you are interested in a lot more detail, you can check out my Philosophics blog or read these books by Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things.

As I’ve been reading these books, I’ve come to realise that a lot of observations I’ve had over the years now make perfect sense. McGilchrist talks about this at length and on a higher level (as well as at a deeper level). I think that this YouTube short (60 seconds) sums it up nicely.

Video: YouTube content about cerebral hemisphere differences

In summary, the right hemisphere is about being open and seeing the whole picture. It just experiences what it finds without judgement or naming. I like to think of it as the freedom that comes with Zen.

The left hemisphere is the master of maps and symbols. It is also the queen of denial. It’s about categorising and naming.

As humans, we need both hemispheres operating together, allowing each hemisphere to do its thing. Unfortunately, the left hemisphere can tend to operate as a bad faith partner and an unreliable narrator. This is further exacerbated by the trends in society to move more and more toward systemisation.

Organisations are organic, but left-brainers want to systematise them. This is a fatal error. To be fair, this is my job. I’ve been systematising for decades now. In my defence, I realise the need to allow the organic to remain organic. One doesn’t pry open rose petals to make them bloom sooner. And one doesn’t dissect golden egg-laying geese. But this is precisely what companies do. This is further exacerbated by the fact that this is predicated on systems thinking, which is decidedly in the realm of the right hemisphere.

The challenge runs deeper still. A right hemisphere dominant person trying to explain this to a left hemisphere person is like having to explain a joke or a metaphor. Or a piece of music or art. These things don’t need translation. They speak directly. You can’t understand a poem or prose by dissecting the words. It’s their configuration that gives the work meaning.

Sure, you can analyse a piece of art, but the pieces are less than the whole. Take a poem and rearrange the words to see what I mean. Take the last lines of this Postmodern Robert Frost poem.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

When interpreted by a Modern (a good stand-in for a left-brain thinker), this typically translates to something along the lines of, “It’s a good thing I took this path instead of taking the other one taken by the masses because now I am better off.” But that would be missing the point.

The Postmodern ( a good stand-in for a right-brain thinker) interpretation—in fact, the meaning asserted by its author, Robert Frost—is that while it has made all the difference, if he had taken the other path, the result would be the same, which is to say that he could still claim that taking the other path had made all the difference.

To explain the poem—LOL, right—, if the road more travelled led to the city and the road less travelled led to the beach, then the difference in taking the road more travelled would be the city whilst the less travelled road would lead to the beach. And that would make all the difference.

But it’s more than this. These words are part of a larger poem. Even so, if I rearrange the words—words are a left hemisphere strength—the holistic meaning—a right hemisphere strength—is lost and likely to the point of gibberish.

And the wood less one has that made, 
and I diverged—by all, I traveled a difference
Two took in the roads.

Right. So what has this to do with business and Agile?

It’s been said that systematising a process is to already make it less efficient. This is to say that if I perform a process and then document it, the documented process is less efficient. This is not necessarily the insert tab A into slot B type of processes, but these are sales processes, business analysis, and software development processes.

When a guru salesperson gives a seminar or hawks a book, this is their process. As Buddha was dying, he said “Find your own path.” This is to say that he found his path. You could not succeed by mimicking him. You needed to find your own path. If we consider the Buddha as being right hemisphere dominant, we can see the people who carried on his tradition by systematising it are left hemisphere. And the people who believe that following the system will gain them enlightenment miss the point, being left brainers missing the woods for the trees.

Agile is like that. It’s a right hemisphere heuristic activity whilst business and software development are left hemisphere fare. The two don’t have a natural centre. Like oil and water, the two don’t mix.

Left dominant business people will insist that they can make Agile work in a stifling setting. It can’t. In fact, it creates an anti-pattern, only making things worse.

This left shift defines business—and sadly most science of the past century or so— and worse, it’s the trend for the larger society that continues to think small when the solution requires one to step back to see the forest for the trees, to see it’s an elephant and not a snake or a rope.

6 blind people trying to guess what kind of animal they have encountered by only feeling parts. (Spoiler Alert: It’s an elephant.)

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