Forgiveness and Permission

I’ve been an advocate of the quote “it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than ask permission” – attributed to Grace Hopper.  But the word ‘forgiveness’ has started to play on my mind.  I understand the principle of responsibility that lies behind the phrase ‘ask permission’ and appreciate the spirit of JFDI and experimentation that this quote suggests.  But still the word ‘forgiveness’ niggles.  The first sentence from the wikipedia article on forgiveness – “Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.” – sums it up.  Words like victim, offence, and offender all suggest something wrong to me.  Metaphors and quotes, like models are incomplete and probably should not be taken literally but I do think we need to be aware of some of the subtle messages that they contain.  Experimentation and action should be taken in an open manner, with an appreciation for the outcomes and those who may be affected by the outcome.  If something is a good idea and worth doing, don’t hesitate because you feel you need to ask permission, but don’t do something that you think you’ll need to beg forgiveness for afterwards.  Be open, transparent and clear … but also be courageous and do ‘the right thing.’

Respond to change

The Agile Manifesto talks about responding to change rather than following a plan.  The first part of this is to avoid following a plan with no thought, even though circumstances have changed.  The second, often not fully understood, part is around the word respond.

There are two words that describe actions taken when change occurs.  There is the instinctive, quick reaction and then there is the slower and more thoughtful response.  In terms of the Chimp Paradox we’re talking of the Chimp and the Human brain.  The Chimp is more instinctive and emotional responding based on historical patterns.  The Human is more logical and uses reason and can go outside the normal patterns.

The book Thinking Fast and Slow describes the same split in a slightly less evocative way using System 1 and System 2, but describes the rationalising nature of the brain that can often fill in false logic for the decisions made by System 1 (The Chimp) to fool us into thinking that we’ve used logic and rational thinking to make the decision when it was the lightening quick System 1(Chimp).

The creators of the Agile Manifesto seem to have understood this distinction when drafting the value statement.  They clearly suggest that responding to change is a more preferred action to slavishly following a plan disregarding the changes that may occur during the journey.  This is not a knee jerk reaction to things turning on their heads, it’s a thoughtful, rational and logic plan of action.

So in the heat of a change we should not just take the first action that comes to mind, but should undertake a thoughtful analysis and then take action, if needed.  RESPOND to change not REACT to change.

Respond v React


What can we learn from flocks of birds

Flocking birds is a great example of natural self-organisation.  Large groups of birds fly together in stunning patterns.  The computer modelling of this behaviour is based around three simple rules.

  • Separation – members of the flock keep within a certain distance of their neighbours
  • Alignment – members of the flock steer towards the average heading of its neighbours
  • Cohesion – members of the flock steer towards the average position of its neighbours

Seeding the flock with a small number of individuals that fly with some purpose would create flocks that follow these patterns with no direct communication between the individuals and the rest of the flock.

Are there lessons from this model that can be applied to the self-organisation of human teams?  I think so.

The first lesson is the simplicity of the system.  Three simple rules can create the flocking patterns of birds in flight.  A complex system of many rules is not needed to create this self-organisation.  The simplicity of the three rules of flocking have a resonance with the simplicity of [Asimov’s three rules or robotics|].  (Although later works have added at least one more, which is still a simple system.)

The next lesson is that there is no direct control between the seeded birds and the rest of the flock.  They seeded bird ‘leads’ by example and the rest of the birds follow.

The third lesson is the details of the laws.  They are straightforward rules about interaction within a group.

So how could this be applied to a team.

  • Simplicity – a small number of ‘rules’ or ‘conventions’ are all that are needed
  • Team leaders should lead by example – show don’t tell
  • Align the rules around simple social interaction
    • Treat individuals within the team with care
    • Individuals work towards common goals
    • Individuals work close to other members of the team

Bird Flocking

Anything else are support of the rules.  For instance, the goal needs to be clear and measurable such that individuals can tell whether they are aligned or not.  There may need to be some team conventions that help clarify what ‘treating individuals with care’ means.  In basic flocking it is simpler – don’t get too close 🙂

Three simple rules can be used to model the beautiful complexity of the self-organisation of a flock of birds flying in the sky.  It is the same simplicity that can create the environment that allow for the beauty of self-organisation within a team.

Gumption Traps

Recently for me, ‘reading’ has meant ‘listening’ to audio books on my commute to and from work.  I’ve listened to many new books while travelling but have also revisited some favourites from the past.  One such book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I first read it, old school paper book, in the 80s and the brown edged paperback is a treasured possession that follows me from one house to another.  In a recent bout of nostalgia I trawled through books from my past in audio format and found a version of ZAMM in Audible and quickly downloaded and spent a happy week listening to it while traveling to work.

One of my favourite sections is where the author, Robert Pirsig, describes ‘Gumption Traps’.


Gumption is a term that Robert Pirsig uses to describe the attitude needed to accomplish a task with ‘quality’.  He describes an initial statement from a Japanese list of assembly instructions that it required ‘peace of mind’.  ‘Gumption traps’ are those situations that would rob you of gumption and ‘peace of mind’.  At the risk of Aristotelean categorisation, he identified two groups of ‘gumption traps’, those that are the result of external situations, or setbacks, and those that are the result of internal situations, or hangups.

He goes on to give some examples of different setbacks – my favourite is the ‘out of sequence reassembly setback’ – where you try to reassemble something only to find that you’ve missed something and it doesn’t go back together.  He suggests some techniques for dealing with the setbacks to reduce the negative effect on gumption.  For instance to try to avoid the ‘out of sequence reassembly setback’, he suggests making clear notes about the disassembly with things like, order, interesting facts about the disassembly, and noting orientation and condition of the parts.

The he looks at the hangups and again discusses some examples of the sort of hangups that will rob you of gumption.  Again in an Aristotelean feat of categorisation he identified three types of hangups – value hangups, truth hangups and muscle hangups.  Examples of the value hangups are ego and value fixidity, with muscle insensitivity and bad surroundings as examples of the muscle hangups.  He introduced the concept of mu a Japanese term for ‘no thing’, when discussing truth hangups and the ‘yes/no logic trap’ to suggest a middle way out of a false duality of either/or or yes/no.  Ask a different question and try to look at the problem in a different way that may open up further options.

While the examples he gives are all relevant to the activity of Motorcycle Maintenance – hence the title of the book – they have their equivalent in any activity.  The current movement of ‘Software Craftsmanship’ has a similar attitude of ‘taking care’ and being mindful of ‘Quality’.

Shitty First Draft

Starting anything can be daunting.  It’s said that ‘Perfection is the enemy of good‘ and the desire to make sure that something is perfect or just right can result in never doing anything.  I’m prone to this problem and have many projects that I’ve spent time on only not to ‘start’ because I’ve wanted to make sure that it was perfect before I showed anyone.  Well I’m going to try a different tack.  This is a tack that I have used with success in NaNoWriMo to complete the required 50,000 words in a month twice now.  Both times I just ‘started’ and continued with the mindset that I was creating a ‘shitty first draft’ and carried on every day until I had reached the required number of words.

But what do I mean with the term ‘shitty first draft’.  This is a phrase inspired by Ernest Hemingway quote that ’The first draft of anything is shit’, but popularised by Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird  It is an antidote for perfection paralysis.  Don’t worry about the state of the first draft, it’s a just an outpouring of ideas to be shaped later.  Miss Lamott justifies just getting it down and not bothering about the quality as ‘no-one is going to see it’.  The shaping comes later.  You can improve on a draft, but you cannot improve on nothing.

It is not for everyone.  Some do need the structure of a full plan with plot, outline and schedule before they start.  For me that way leads to stagnation.  So shitty first draft it is.   I’ll polish as I go on.

First Steps

So this is the first entry of the blog, the first step.  I’ll start with a short bio/introduction, then a short description of the aims for this blog – which will evolve.

Who am I?  I promised that this would be short.  I’m a child of the 60s and compressing the last 50 years of the evolving picture of who I am at any one time into a ‘short bio’ is not going to be easy.  I am many things to many people: brother to four fellow travellers, husband to a wonderfully patient woman, father to four spectacular young men and women, passionate advocate of a better way to work, technologist, geek, nerd and lover of new gadgets and technologies, collector of productivity tools in the vague hope that I’ll find that illusive silver bullet.  That is a start, checkout my current mind map profile.


What do I want to achieve with this blog?  At this moment it time, I hope to use the blog as a discussion forum for ideas that I’ve been fermenting for many years.  Mostly these will be around my current passions, Agile, DevOps and a better way of creating value, and productivity tools, in particular mind mapping.  This will change.

Distilling the sourmash of ideas swirling around from the last 50 years into meaningful talking points is going to be a challenge.  But I’m looking forward to it.  So it’s TTFN and I’ll TTYL