In this episode, Thomas Perry talks about thermodynamics of emotion. Observing animal and human behavior is also discussed, as well as organizational restructuring, Flow and how it moves through systems, and alignment in appetite and emotion.
Tom has been working as a transformation agent in software development for over 20 years. He has worked on teams at startup companies, large corporations in the Fortune 100 and the State and Federal Government. His background includes testing, development, project/program management, agile coaching/mentoring and training. As part of his involvement in the greater agile community, he led the Seattle eastside chapter of the Agile Project Leadership Network as well as recently creating the Open Agile Management conference in Seattle. He is a speaker and author on Agile topics in local and international forums. He wrote “The Little Book of Impediments” which can be found on www.leanpub.com.
01:30 – Tom’s Superpower: Hot Toddies, Eccentricity, and Talking to Animals!
04:42 – Observing Animal vs Humans Behavior and Organizational Restructuring
10:25 – Looking For Genuine Change, Empowering Workers, and the Conflation of the terms Boss and Manager
23:20 – Flow and How it Moves Through Systems
33:45 – Predictive and Explanatory Power
37:40 – Breaking Things Down
43:37 – Alignment in Appetite and Emotion
52:08 – Defining Quality
01:02:21 – Emotional Metaphors and Sensory Inputs
Jessica: When the language gets woo-ey, the ideas might be new-y.
Rein: Quality is individual and personal. It is subjective and intersubjective.
Thomas: The best ideas are often found in uncomfortable places.
John: Systems of living things are living systems.
Janelle: Don’t assume you understand anything immediately when you walk into a room. Let that understanding be emergent through the process of observation.
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JOHN: Welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 111. I’m John Sawers and I am here with my co-host, Janelle Klein.
JANELLE: Thanks, John and I am here with my co-host, Rein Henrichs.
REIN: Thanks Janelle and I am here with my co-host, Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Thanks, Rein and I am here with our guest today, Tom Perry. Tom has been working as a transformation agent in software development for over 20 years. He has worked on teams at startup companies, large corporations, and the state and federal government. His background includes testing, development, project/program management, agile coach and mentoring and training. He’s involved in the greater Agile community. He led the Seattle East Side chapter of the APLN — okay, what’s the APLN?
TOM: The Agile Project Leadership Network.
JESSICA: As well as recently creating the open Agile management conference in Seattle. He’s a speaker and an author on Agile topics in local and international forums. He wrote the book, ‘The Little Book of Impediments,’ which is on Leanpub and he has a blog and Tom, we invited you on the show because I saw on your blog an article about Thermodynamics of Emotions and we are super into systems, especially living systems in organizations on this podcast, so we wanted to ask you about that but first, the question we always start with, hey, John, would you do the question?
JOHN: What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
TOM: I talked to my wife about that and at first, she said I’m making [inaudible] which is whole other story but in all honesty, she said, “You know, you’ve got an awful lot of books and you’re kind of a wannabe folks who is always pushing himself to improve,” and I looked around and I thought, “Yeah, you could be right,” because indeed, in my office, it’s piled high with books and I’m always sort of looking for new ideas. But to be honest with you, I’ve always been kind of one of these guys who’s on the periphery. I’m not one of those folks who’s attracted to the mainstream ideas, so my superpower may be eccentricities and the odd ideas.
It’s a tough question to answer, so I went online and you can take a test to find out what your superpower is and it told me that it was talking to animal and that’s completely all right, so guys, I’ll do my best here.
REIN: Hey, I have one question, what do you do for a living?
TOM: Well, you know, I do what folks call transformation work with organizations, which is a fancy way of saying management consulting, which is an even fancier way of saying that we come into organizations and try and help them change their process, whether it’s Agile or some other method or something like that but I still don’t think my mother understands what I do.
REIN: So for animals, if you construe it widely enough, you talk to some of them.
TOM: Yes. Well, actually my background is an animal behavior. I got my degree in college in something called the ethology, which is the psychological study of animals. I did a lot of experimentation. I spent a lot of time being at sort of a Jane Goodall: watching chimpanzees and polar bears and things like that and that all stems from kind of an interest in animal behavior that has been with me for a long time. It suited me well actually with management consulting because when you want to see real animals in the wild, I think the boardroom is a good place to start.
The other thing is, I think there’s an awful lot in terms of organization to be learned from animals, so if you’re looking for self-organizing systems, self-organizing systems are very well-represented in the animal kingdom. Think of insects, like ants and think of animal herds like herd development, for example. All of these are examples of systems leaderless systems — systems that self-organize in interesting ways and all of that suggests to us patterns that we could re-use in our organizations.
Mother Nature has been refining this notion of self-organization for millennia and we can take advantage of that. We can use some of those simple rules that you see at play in animal systems, insect systems, in the boardroom, and in organizations. Curiously enough though, we tend to default to things like hierarchy really, really fast.
REIN: There’s a lot that we could talk about here. I would like to go back to the beginning and ask you how your study of animal psychology has help you with humans.
TOM: Well, the animal psychology was a lot about watching. If you look at ethology and how it’s done, ethology is all about taking notes and observing behavior and so, you spend a lot of time with a notepad, looking at the way people or animals act and ethology kind of treats people and animals rather uniformly. When I’m sitting in a room, a lot of what my work is doing what we call discovering an organization. You come in, you’re doing your big transformation, and the first question is, “What are we doing here? Why am I here? Why do you need me? What’s wrong with this system?”
That background and observation has really stood me well because when I go in, I’m observing the organization as an animal and I’m looking for certain kinds of behavior and I’m keying in on certain ideas about what I think is wrong with the system and I’m looking for evidence of that. That kind of observation, that kind of looking at the system as a whole, whether it’s a herd or it’s a boardroom full of executives, either way has served me very well.
REIN: In cultural anthropology, there’s a method called participant observation, which is where to gather qualitative data, you go and embed yourself inside a culture and participate intensely in the culture so that you can gain this intimate understanding of the culture through your participation. Is that a thing that you’ve done yourself on and found yourself doing in these consulting arrangements?
TOM: Yeah. I think there is an insider and outsider perspective there. When I go in as an outside consultant, when I’m brought in as part of change effort, then I’m definitely the outsider in the system and it’s very, very hard to get into the system. But then there are other places like when I worked at some companies, when I worked for those companies and became an employee, initially you have the outsider thing but pretty soon, you become part of the system and now, you’re working within the system and it’s a very, very different perspective. It’s much more of a long term perspective that you have. You’re being incorporated into the culture.
When I’m a coach within a company, when I’m an employee, when I’ve been there for a while, it’s very, very different than when I come in as sort of that paid, hired gun outsider. They’re both powerful perspectives. They’re both very, very useful but they’re very, very different places to operate and typically, what I see is when you’re the hired gun, you have the advantage of being sort of having this halo effect, where people have brought you in to be the experts and they really trust you when they empower you with a lot of attributes you may or may not actually have, so they treat you like this superpowered expert. When you’re an employee, they tend to treat you differently. When you’re an employee, you’re one of them, you don’t have superpowers. They know you well. They see you coming and it’s different there. You don’t have that sort of outsider superpower but on the other hand, you understand the system. You’re part of it. You see all the moving parts and so, to some degree, you can behave in much more subtle ways in making change.
In other ways, it’s much more difficult to make change because nobody’s listening because you’re part of the system. It’s kind of a catch-22. When you’re on the inside, you can see all the gears and all the moving parts and I think, you have a much heightened perception of what’s going on but at the same time, it’s much more difficult to be taken seriously sometimes when you’re trying to make change. When you’re external, you don’t see what’s going on. You may be making the wrong call but at the same time, they’re paying large sums of money for your opinion, so it’s really a contrast.
REIN: Gerry Weinberg talks about an interesting effect for external consultants and maybe you can tell me if you’ve noticed this, where when you’re brought in by the manager or an executive or a board to affect some change, your job is actually just to make the person that heard you look good. You can do that either by succeeding or by failing. If you succeed, then they look good because you succeeded. If you failed, then they look good because, “Look, this expensive consultant couldn’t make it work. Clearly, I couldn’t have been expected to do it.”
TOM: Yes. That’s very true. There’s definitely some legitimacy to that. Although, I have to say that in my experience, I haven’t had a whole lot of that going into fail perspective. I haven’t had somebody who’s really looking for that. I’ve had folks that were looking for a rubber stamp and so oftentimes, they want to be kind of legitimized or to have some process legitimized, so that they can say, “Yes, we’re Agile now. Yes, we’re doing SAFe now,” and that sort of thing or using a given framework or process. That seems to be something that I have encountered a fair amount and in fact, the folks who are genuinely kind of interested in meaningful change are a relative minority. I haven’t been in the awkward position, at least not recently, of a situation where it was a matter of failing in order to make them look good.
JESSICA: Did you just say that the people looking for genuine change are a minority?
TOM: I think so. I just don’t think they understand really what they’re asking for. Oftentimes, they’ll say, “Yeah, we want Agile,” and I really want to come back to them and say, “Agile is about self-organization. Do you really understand what that implies?” That implies fundamentally that your organization needs to restructure itself and reorganize itself. If you’re really going to enable empowered, self-organizing teams, that means the role of managers is going to be called into question. That’s going to change dramatically. That means the way that you do your HR practices, your compensation practices, that’s going to change. It’s a dramatic level of change that most people are completely unwilling to engage with, for good reason. It’s far beyond what they ever anticipated.
REIN: Corporations are modern day tyrannies. They’re the most hierarchical structures on the face of the Earth, next maybe only to militaries. Agile, my understanding of Agile originally is it was about empowering workers to self-determine, to make decisions, to communicate with each other, to organize in a way other than this corporate tyranny. I think this what you’re talking about. When you get a boss who wants to implement Agile, they don’t want to change the fact that they’re boss.
TOM: Exactly. Yeah, that’s one of the questions that I actually tweeted the other day, which is, I almost want to start all my engagements with, if we’re going to proceed, is it okay if the outcome is you’re no longer the boss and it’s kind of a test question. I imagine that most people in most large corporation’s answer would be, “Hell, no.”
REIN: I think another thing that plays into this is that in these modern structures, boss and manager have become conflated. They’re different roles but they’re usually embodied in one person and they become conflated.
TOM: Yeah, absolutely. The other thing that’s happening here is that these organizations and the way we think about them, the way we interact with them is as mechanical systems. We’ve try really, really hard to make a lot of the processes that we put in place for these people, very rigid sort of widget processing kind of systems, where we’re going to pump in some inputs and get some outputs and as predictable to fashion as possible and that’s ignoring the fact that these are living systems and as living systems, they don’t work that way. Living systems have a lot of fuzziness to them, a lot of uncertainty in them, and if we could think about them that way, then we can take advantage of that but we tend to fall into this sort of very Tayloristic, Henry Ford style thinking about systems that hobbles us and you see it in all of the frameworks that we try and apply today, whether it’s Scrum or SAFe or Kanban. They are basically these very sort of mechanical efforts to apply a rigid system to something that’s living, namely the organization.
REIN: You mentioned a few of these things but you specifically said Kanban and that’s fascinating to me because Kanban came out of The Toyota Way and The Toyota Way is diametrically opposed to Taylorism and Fordism — diametrically opposed system of management. The focus is on worker empowerment, on managing the system as a whole, rather than moving towards targets and bottom lines, focuses on increasing the variety of available to the workers. You’re taking Kanban which came out of The Toyota Way and you’re trying to shove it into this Taylorist model and I think that what you’re seeing is that Kanban works in the context and when you strip it of that context and you place it in a new context, it has to change and the way it changes may not be good.
TOM: Yeah, I would agree with that very much and when you see Kanban implemented, what you really see are Kanban boards where people are struggling to pump work through those Kanban boards as hard as they can. That is pretty where Kanbans begins and ends is at that Kanban board, which unfortunately loses all of what you were talking about in terms of The Toyota Way and the respect for people and all the other pieces. All sorts are get lost in this because again, I think we tend to focus on the tools and the mechanics of the system and we tend to lose the icky people stuff, the soft skills that tends to get lost when we try and implement this stuff. I think it’s because we’re fundamentally uncomfortable with that soft and squishy, emotional living stuff that is what makes up.
REIN: I think if you want a really specific example of how Kanban has been sort of perverted, you mentioned it. In Kanban and The Toyota Way, when do you build a car? When someone buys a car. Work is pulled through the system by demand. That’s how Kanban works, right? When do you stock your shelf? When it’s empty. You build stuff when there’s demand for it.
JESSICA: Tom just used the phrase, “They want to pump work into that Kanban board,” which is exactly the opposite of that and it turns out that pull works a lot better for supporting flows.
TOM: Absolutely. I didn’t really come to some of this realization until I had gone to the Thermodynamics of Emotion Conference. It was a place where I was confronted with a lot of different ideas for the kind of the first time. Just to give a little explanation, that conference was basically a three-day symposium. It was organized by Willem Larsen and he brought together these really divergent people to talk about living systems. I didn’t really understand that at the time. It just had this really fuzzy Thermodynamics of Emotion title that I had to be persuaded to even go because I thought that sounds really touchy-feely.
But in the conference, basically there were three different keynote speakers. There was a physicist who talked about flow. This guy, Adrian Bejan has this new law of nature that he thinks he’s discovered called the ‘Constructal Law.’ He talked about that. That was the first thing that was presented. Then the next day, we were introduced to a dog trainer who was Kevin Behan and Kevin talks about emotions and how emotions are transmitted through animals and people.
Now Adrian, or rather Kevin has basically rejected many of the modern psychological notions of behaviorism and dominance, so again, this another guy who’s experimenting with kind of some wacky unpopular ideas or new ideas that people are unfamiliar with and then finally at the last day, was a talk by a guy who was an expert, Brandt Stickley. He was an expert in Chinese medicine. Now, we’re way out in wacko-ville.
All of this stuff is stuff that myself as sort of a fairly intellectual type, I was actually a little uncomfortable with. You’ve got a physicist who’s talking about a brand new law of nature he’s discovered, all right? How likely is that? Then you’ve got this dog trainer who purports to have a theory that completely rejects all known theories of psychology. My background in psychology, he’s telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, so I’m challenged by this guy and then finally, there’s Chinese medicine. Look, I’m a son of a doctor and I’ve never ever taken Chinese medicine seriously. In fact, it was something that really threw me because I was like, “You cannot really seriously expect me to take this. It was more than I could handle.”
REIN: You’re thinking, “This is either woo or at least, woo-adjacent.”
TOM: Exactly. This was woo, woo, and woo. This was really, really tough. Going into it, I went as a kind of as a favor to a friend and I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out that this was one of those things where you hear ideas — certainly on the first day, I heard ideas in what the physicist was talking about in terms of flow and how flow moves through living systems that I really liked and as someone who spends his time looking at organizations and how they work, I loved it. There were ideas that I was like, “I can run with this. I can start to apply mathematical precision to some of the things that we look for in organizations.”
He was positing that flow works to distribute information, dollars, and emotions in large systems, abstractly speaking, where you have things that move quickly in large pathways and things move very, very slowly in slow pathways. He actually had mathematical proofs that talked about how this worked in different living systems. It was very intriguing to see kind of his math for how flow works in different kinds of systems: inanimate systems and living systems, whether it’s a river, a tree, or a large organization. He had proofs for what you could expect in terms of good flow and bad flow and that sort of thing, which was profoundly interesting.
Then one other piece that’s really important here is the audience. The audience was guys like me, just a couple of organizational —
JESSICA: People like you —
TOM: And there were people who were consultants. You had a couple of consultants in the room and you had animal trackers. These were people who spend their time doing tracking, man-tracking for escape prisoners, I mean, hardcore animal trackers and then you had people who were dog trainers and horse trainers and then, you had folks who were into Chinese medicine. This was the most esoteric crowd I had ever sat in the middle of and so, at any given point, you could see part of the group, everybody be nodding their heads like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” and you see stunned silence from some of the other folks because they were completely out of their depth and yet, the more you listen to this stuff, what it was, was you were catching pieces of ideas.
This wasn’t like a conference where you’re catching something that you’ve seen before. This isn’t like, “Oh, yeah. This release planning. I know how this works.” This was something completely new that look similar, that looked interesting but you weren’t quite sure what it was and you weren’t quite sure if you bought it or not, to be honest. In fact, when you listen to people talk afterwards, they would use language that was very tentative and sounded very woo-woo simply because, they didn’t have really words to put it all together.
One of the things that was a big outcome for me was when you’re in a group of people who are trying to express new ideas to them, the language comes out sounding very woo-woo because there’s a lot of uncertainty and they’re just trying to build the language. I heard that in the animal trackers, when they were trying to express, when they look at a footprint, they’ve been doing it long enough that they don’t just understand which direction you’re going but they’re looking at a footprint and saying, “What’s the emotional state of that animal? Is it panicked? Is it calmed? Is it injured?” and they were starting to posit things, they started to verge on the mystical, so they would say, “I can tell that that man needs to pee. That guy, he definitely needs to take a leak and I can tell from his footprint,” and it leaves you slack-jawed with wonder. You’re like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” but they’re pushing the boundaries and trying to put a theory together to explain what they know and see and so, they’re trying to find the right language to say, “I see this. I perceive this and I’m trying to find the right words to put it together,” but when they say it, it comes out sounding uncomfortable and difficult and it’s not that they don’t know it and it’s not that they’re not seeing something real but they don’t know how to articulate it and so, it comes out very woo-woo.
All of that was to say was this was uncomfortable space. This was the kind of symposium where I was listening to other people and definitely having a lot of that, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I buy that at all.” But at the same time, these people were experts. They were able to justify what they were talking about, so you’re getting this mishmash of really strong ideas and you’re like, “Yeah, you’re on to something. I love that,” and then in the next moment, they would take it someplace where you’re like, “God, I don’t know if I can go there.”
We started with a physicist and then we moved into the dog trainer and this guy, Kevin Behan was one of the foremost dog trainers in the US, if not in the world. This guy knew his stuff but he was basically doing a lot of rejecting of existing psychological notions about how emotions work and one of the things that he was saying was that emotions are contagious. They flow through people and through systems and that we align ourselves according to certain appetites and he started assigning sort of polarities to emotions and he talked about emotions in terms of prey-ful emotions and predatory emotions or aspects.
He uses dogs as his metaphor for this because of course, dogs are one of those species that have adapted themselves so closely to us that if anything actually is receptive and understands our emotional state, it’s probably animals like dogs, maybe horses and things like that, animals that have been evolving very, very closely with us for a very long time. Of course, if you’re a dog owner, you definitely understand that dogs or at least, have some hint that maybe dogs understand your own emotional state. When you’re upset, they behave differently. When you’re happy, they behave differently. Obviously, they understand some sort of behavioral interactions or signals from us.
What he’s willing to say, those emotions are being transmitted to the dog back and forth, between you and the dog and then, if you’re willing to acknowledge that, if you’re willing to go there, then you also have to acknowledge that I can transmit emotions between myself and other people and you know this if you work in teams that powerful emotions can work their way through teams and even subtle emotions can work their way through teams. I’ve been a team leader and enough to know that I can come in and if I’m having a bad day or if I’ve just gotten beat up in a meeting and I walk into the team room, I can take the whole emotion in the room. I just bring it down. Or if I’m keyed up, they know it and they get excited. That all happens without me necessarily walking into the room and saying, “Boy, I’m sad,” or, “Boy, I’m happy.” It’s a lot of very subtle signals that are going on there that interplay or flow across the team.
When you start to look at organizations in a larger perspective, you see that there are things that emotions flow across larger groups as well and in fact, that might have a lot to do with what we think of as alignment in organizations. Organizations that are well-aligned are organizations that have good emotional flow. That is all of our appetites are aligned in the same direction. We’re all trying to obtain the same reward or obtain the same emotional high together and when you’re not well-aligned, then you’re working towards a different emotional objectives. Again, this is a kind of stuff that I don’t have a lot to back it up but this his theory and this the kind of thing that’s like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea. I think there might be something there.”
JESSICA: Is it like those times when as a team, you’re working and you’re working to get something out and then you do and there’s this release that you all share in, as opposed to when we’re each on our individual tasks and they’re completely in different rhythms? I notice that that there’s just getting something done by myself doesn’t have that fulfillment that getting something done as a team or a pair does.
TOM: Yeah, I think so. I think that the more tightly that you can bring the group together, in terms of personal space and in terms of the way you work together, whether it’s pairing up in pair programming, whether it is ceremonies like getting together in the morning to check in with each other. One of the things that I’ve seen with high performing teams is that the standup is not the rigid stand up that we think of in typical scrum and other methods. The standup that I’ve seen on teams that are really close emotionally is more akin to a fist fight.
It’s the kind of thing where these people are giving each other a hard time. They’re joking, they’re asking about their kids, they’re very emotionally engaged with each other as opposed to these rather mechanical standups you have where it’s, “What did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? And what are your impediments, next person?”
A really good ceremony is one where you see a lot of personality or you see a lot of emotion and so, on this particular team that I’m thinking of, people would get upset when they heard somebody was having a hard time with something, that the code was going slowly or if something wasn’t working right and they would challenge each other in ways that were emotional. They would react, they would express very visibly, as opposed to teams that are fairly lifeless in their interaction, where somebody can say something’s going wrong or not coming along well or something like that and you get almost no reaction. You know, “Oh, that’s too bad. Boy that sucks for you, man,” and nobody really engages. There is some element of emotional engagement when you’re closer that I think makes a huge difference.
REIN: I am pretty into these interdisciplinary field of studies. When I saw that you’re coming on, I did some research and this is all very interesting. The sort of canonical example of one of these constructal system is a river — lots of small flows leading to a larger flow and this system over time changes its configuration to improve the quality of that flow. Under this constructal model, that’s an example of the evolution of the river. There’s also this idea of small flows leading to big flows, which is why it’s called constructal and it’s sort of set to be sort of as the dual to fractal. Fractal literally means breaking apart and constructal literally means building up. If you look at fractal systems, like lightning. Lightning is one big thing that splits off and splits off and splits off until it becomes smaller things and a river is a bunch of small things that all come together to become one large things, so they’re dual. They’re the opposite of each other.
It’s interesting that Bejan, his reputation in the physics community is sort of split. He’s a very polarizing figure is what I’ve learned. There are people in the community that think that this just woo, it’s nonsense, it’s not a theory with predictive power, it’s not a useful theory but then there are people that think it’s useful and I remember that Mandelbrot was first thought to be a charlatan and then, he was thought to be a salesperson. His book takes wide-ranging credit for a bunch of his discoveries that could have been attributed to other people and then later on, was the basis of this new with field of chaos theory that has taken over the world of math and physics.
TOM: I really see that and I think there’s a certain kind of personality and it may even be a prerequisite for somebody with a new idea. Adrian’s Constructal Law, you’re absolutely right. There are people, even I looked at it and went, “Uh, boy, you’re really pushing the envelope,” and when you read this book, he comes off as very arrogant. He’s definitely taking credit for being the first person to see these things, even though if you kind of look around, you’re like, “Whoa, dude –”
REIN: That is exactly Mandelbrot.
TOM: Right, so you see that kind of behavior in the guy and you read it in his work and seeing him again, he’s very similar in the way he presents and there’s a part of you that kind of turned off by that. But I think it’s almost a prerequisite for somebody who’s got a new idea because I’ve seen this in other people who are espousing new ideas and I can give a few examples but these people almost had to have that kind of almost a tone deafness to criticism. This ability, a really strong belief in what they have, they’re not the kind of people who shy away from taking credit for things. They’re not the kind of people who are shy about their really strong belief in what they have and it makes me wonder if that’s not a prerequisite for somebody who’s really pushing a new idea because otherwise, let’s face it, these guys are facing an incredible torrent of criticism. There are a lot of people who want to tell you that you’re an idiot, that you got it wrong, and in the face of that, I think it takes a fairly strong personality, one that might even be frankly irritating to hang out with, that is necessary to get these ideas across in the real world.
REIN: I think I mentioned that the people that claimed that there is not a lot of predictive power in these laws, that is sort of a criteria that’s used to judge new theories.
JESSICA: Yeah, but is that the only thing that is useful?
REIN: No, so here’s the interesting thing. Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is how do revolutions in science happen and the challenge that then prevailing view that science happens through accumulation of facts and theories, that small advancements were made in certain directions and that’s how change in science happened. What he argued is that there is an episodic model of scientific revolution where science reaches some state of status quo, some state of sort of conceptual conformity and continuity that is then breached through this revolution.
Jessica, to your point about is predictive power. The only thing that matters in the book, Kuhn looks at the Copernican Revolution and one of the things he emphasized is that when his work first came about, it didn’t offer a more accurate predictions of the motion of the planets. It just offered a new model for existing observations.
JESSICA: And that new model proved to be easier to build on.
REIN: Well, it later proved to be much easier to work with and to make better predictions but at the time, it wasn’t necessary for it to offer more predictive power or new predictions for it to be revolutionary. What it did offer was sort of simpler solutions that were easier to work with, that offered the prospect of future development.
TOM: You know, I think that’s very true. I think there are a couple of things I thought about what Adrian is trying to do. Number one, it’s early, so we don’t know if this a Copernican Revolution or not and we won’t know for a while, probably until most of us are dead. He’s dealing with something else that’s very new and there are two things that I think we try and get out of this. One is predictive power and the other is explanatory power.
On the one hand, people can say, “It’s not useful to us unless it’s predictive,” and certainly there’s an element of that when I look at this and ask myself, “How can I use it?” If he’s going to talk about principles of how flow can aggregate in certain ways, then I want to be able to use that to look at an organization and make some sort of prediction based on what I see that can tell those folks, whether or not they’re in trouble or how to improve. That’s a predictive thing I need to be able to do.
On the other hand, there’s the flip side, at least to me which is the explanatory, which is to say, “I just need to be able to explain or interpret what I see and use this theory, use this model, to help me articulate better for everyone what’s happening.” I don’t have to predict anything. In fact, that may be just setting the bar too high but if it can help me explain what’s going on, if it can help me explain that your flow here, here, and here is suboptimal then, I can at least give them a starting point for where they might work on improving things.
When it comes to the rate of change in terms of scientific theory, I can’t speak to that but I can say that looking at this new idea, two of the criteria I use are what is its predictive power or utility and what is its explanatory utility. If it ticks the box for either one of those, it’s good. If it ticks the box for both, then it’s really good.
JOHN: There’s a couple things pooling around my head but not really coming into focus, except for a comment that you had made earlier, Jess about when you’re working alone and you succeed in shipping something, it sort of like, “Meh!” but when the team works on something larger and everyone completes at the same time, you get that collective sense of achievement and that’s something I’ve actually been thinking about a lot lately as ways of taking those little individual micro-wins and bringing them to the group and bringing them to your own awareness more effectively, so that the you can be more aware. If you finish a small thing on Tuesday afternoon, by Friday you forgotten that you achieved that thing and ways of reminding yourself of the things that you are achieving and/or sharing those with the teams, that everyone can sort of share in everyone’s little micro-successes without everyone having to be working on a single thing that’s achieving one giant goal for the team. I’m wondering if you want to talk a little bit more about that.
JESSICA: That is fairly useful. That is something I could use this week.
REIN: Also, you’ve got to keep that in endorphin trip going, right?
TOM: One could argue that breaking things down smaller, whether it’s our interactions or the work we do, it has a lot of merit and certainly, it is something that we spend a lot of time trying to do but I’m sure there’s a lot of subtlety hiding there.
JESSICA: Oh, yeah because if you want to break stuff down, you have to have ways of putting it together and that means that if we want to break our tasks down smaller, which often improves flow, we need ways of bringing those accomplishments back together.
REIN: I have a fundamental problem with this concept of breaking things down, or at least the way that it’s usually portrayed or usually, done which is that when you think about breaking things down, what I usually think about is there are these objects in the system and they have these connections and what we want to do is sever these connections so then we can talk about these objects in isolation. In many systems, especially complex systems, the connections are the things where the complexity lives. The connections are the interesting parts of the system and so, if you’re breaking things down by removing those connections or ignoring those connections, then you’re ignoring a lot of what is interesting about that system.
JESSICA: I just meant breaking tasks down like things that we need to do because the smaller the goal, the easier it flows to the system.
REIN: But don’t tasks relate to each?
JESSICA: Hopefully, they’re pulling on each other.
REIN: And doesn’t the idea of designing tasks such they’re independent limit your conception of the work to be done, to things that can be broken apart?
JESSICA: I didn’t say they were independent.
REIN: Well, but we’re talking about breaking down tasks, which means that they have to be able to be done separately.
JESSICA: Or in sequence. In this case, I want to update the documentation. I can break that piece down into finding a working example and digging into the details of what I need to put into the documentation, versus writing it, versus outlining it. If I try to do as one chunk of work, it doesn’t go anywhere.
TOM: I think one way of putting this and I’ve seen this play out in companies, is the context really matters? Especially when you’re given work from a much larger system, you’re given a small piece of it and that can happen where you have epics that are broken down into features and features that are broken down into stories and stories that are broken down into tasks and if somebody’s on a team, I may not see that task until it comes directly to me and I may not have seen that evolution of how it was broken down into features and how it was broken down into stories —
JESSICA: So why the pull?
TOM: Right, right. You may not see that and in that case, then I think you’re exactly right. That is detrimental. If you don’t have the big picture, if you don’t understand why or how that task relates to other tasks, then you can certainly execute on it but you’re likely to miss important things. That’s why, I think that some of the practices that have become popular in recent years are helpful, things like big room planning, where you pull all of the teams together to work on the stuff in the same room, at the same time, where you have the leadership team giving context for what they’re trying to accomplish and what their goals are and using various mechanisms to share their excitement and their ideas, so that the teams get that.
This goes back to that sort of sharing emotion and appetites. If you can get everybody fired up, if you can get everybody aligned to what those pieces are, then you’re less likely to run into situations, where people are operating in isolation and don’t understand why they’re doing stuff and end up doing sub-optimal stuff. Those large scale ceremonies, I think have been very helpful. I think there’s still lots of room for improvement there but the fundamental purpose there is to align or create flow across a large group.
It’s also a great example of broadband message communication. Large flows, I guess it would be broken down into smaller flows but it’s basically, when you do big room planning, that’s a broadcast mechanism where you’re broadcasting ideas very rapidly across a large number of people, as opposed to team planning which is a smaller pipeline of single stories being broadcast across a team all the way down to task planning, which becomes almost an individual activity. You see the information going through large pipes down to smaller pipes and vice versa, I imagine.
JANELLE: I wanted to go back to something he said while ago that just caught my attention. The importance of alignment in appetite. I was thinking about emotional flow as a vector: all these individuals that are flowing in certain direction and how they influence one another in their own energy shifts and interaction and then there’s this alignment in terms of shared resonance and in direction in terms that you describe in terms of appetite. I was wondering if bringing this back to some concrete examples of how do you see dissonance in appetite, how does that manifest in an organization in a team where you see kind of that conflicts arise in the group? Was that look like?
TOM: One idea that comes to mind is where you may have some folks on the team who are very technically oriented and are really fascinated with architecture. I’ve had folks who really have a strong passion for building beautiful systems and when I say beautiful systems, I mean architecturally, they want to use interesting technology and they want to use, perhaps design patterns that are something they’ve read about recently and find fascinating and these people are very engaged in sort of taking that design and expressing that design. These are people who love that.
Then there are other people, they’re maybe on the same team, in fact people who are more oriented around the problem space, the domain, the customer’s problem. They may be more oriented around solving a customer’s problem and less interested in the design of the system itself and those two groups can certainly be at loggerheads because the design folks are going to try and put that first, in terms of the conversation and you see this a lot.
Actually, let me step back because now that I think about it. I see the biggest conflict oftentimes is kind of a product conflict versus sort of an architecture or health of the system conflict and what I’m thinking of and this is just riffing on this stuff but what I’m thinking of are teams that struggle with maintenance and refactoring of the system and they can be on the same team, versus product people who are saying, “I don’t care about maintenance. I have this bright shiny thing that the customer has asked for and we must have it now and that is the most important thing.”
You get this tension between the two groups on the team, where one side is saying, “We’ve got to give the features. Those are the features that make us money. Customers don’t care about refactoring,” and you have these other people in the team who are like, “Without putting oil in the engine, it’s going to slow us down and eventually break,” and you see that kind of tension all the time. That’s very, very common.
JESSICA: Fast versus smooth?
TOM: Yeah. Maybe that’s a good example. There’s probably others.
JANELLE: This reminds me of the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We have a book club that we have scheduled, I think for January that we’re going to talk about this. I read it very recently and one of the interesting things in the book is this idea of these two contrasting paradigms and it’s a different game optimization. It’s a different appetite and there’s an inherent dissonance in these paradigms, these two different ways of looking at the world. They both have this appetite for a certain type of beautiful and the way that we unify these two sides is quality: what is the quality of the system as a whole that we’re ultimately aiming for that brings these two paradigms together such that our arrows, our appetite can be aligned? So what kind of things have you done to create that kind of emotional alignment between these two distinctive groups?
TOM: Boy, that’s a tough one. It’s very hard to work out right. I think you can be very thoughtful about it or you can take advantage of opportunities. Now, I’m going to give you an example. I was working on a payment processing team and we deployed a bug to production and in payment processing, that can be pretty disastrous because when you deploy something in production that affects dollars and cents, the numbers can add up with absolutely horrifying speed. Once you put the decimal place in the wrong spot, all of a sudden, if you’re talking online transaction processing, things can go sideways really, really fast. We had that happen and it cost the company or threaten to cost the company quite a bit of money.
As I pulled the team together afterwards, there were no happy faces. This was a very powerful event, where we all were like, “My God, we could be fired,” and as we’re sitting there and we go around and we were diagnosing the problem or asking, “How did this happen?” and we came into this kind of this conversation of, “We should have done this thing long ago. We should have written tests for this portion of the code long ago,” and that was the architect saying, “We knew how to do this. We should have done this. Why didn’t we do this?” and then you had the product people on the other side saying, “But what’s it giving me?”
At some point, somebody perked up and said, “Well, they wouldn’t let us do it. They wouldn’t let us do it,” and I looked around and I turned around and I looked at the product manager and I said, “Would you let us do this? Would you let us do this now?” and he was like, “I will pay you extra to spend the next six months to make this right. I don’t ever want to go through this again.” We were all very down but it was that event where somebody said, “They won’t let us do it,” and we pointed around and said, “Can we do it?” and the answer was not yes but, “Hell, yes,” and then what happened after that was the team agreed that everyone on the team would focus on writing tests together. The whole team: developers, it didn’t matter who you were. Even I was writing tests, as long as it took to get that part of the system covered so that this event would never happen again.
Everybody walked out of that powerfully aligned and it was the kind of thing where that’s exactly what we did: we sat down and we wrote test day-in, day-out so the next three or four months, in order to get that part of the system up and never was there any question about alignment in terms of, “Should we do this new feature? This bright shiny thing, these other compelling reasons have come up,” none of that came up. Everybody knew exactly what they were doing. I think that’s probably the best example I can give where I have to admit, I was taking advantage of an opportunity that came along but it led to the right behavior.
REIN: Can I mention a couple of ideas from complexity fairy that can help explain this phenomena, that might be interesting? One is path dependence, which is the idea that a single event can alter a complex system in a way that persists for a long time and this due to feedback. The other is the idea that complex systems have interconnected parts and as that interconnectivity reaches a critical point, interconnectivity in general helps the system become more robust but also paradoxically, as it reaches a certain point, you get to what’s called a critical point where an event can cause a phase transition in the system where it becomes not like it was before.
TOM: Yeah, I like that. Also, I’d like to go back to what Janelle was mentioning, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the other theme that I took away from that book was a struggle to define what quality is and it’s this intangible thing that’s wrestled with throughout the book from a variety of perspectives and I think it’s something that at the end of the day, I’ve come to realize that I think we try and nail it down what is quality and what does it mean for something to have quality, either from a purely mechanical perspective or more of a holistic emotional perspective and I think the answer may be that quality is actually an emotion, that quality is an emotional attribute that it is not something that is a tangible objective sort of thing but more of a feeling.
To me in that particular case, that was an emotional reaction that we had and one of the ways that we need to start talking about quality within our organizations is to talk in terms of quality being a feeling. That also goes back to the conversations about alignments and appetites and that sort of thing. Now, we’re getting into the woo terms but speaking for myself at least, I’m starting to become more comfortable with it because I think I need to. I think we’re missing a critical element in the way we have these conversations, where we need to find the right language to talk about feelings and emotions and appetite.
JANELLE: I guess this one of the reasons why I think, being able to have those conversations, I think to some extent requires us pruning all of the words that have baggage, that means other things and going back to this kind of ethereal space where meaning is still in this place of kind of a musical interpretation and then, reinventing the words we use in that space but I think we need to do it in a way that doesn’t collide with our existing schemas that have a lot of existing baggage around them. I did this, talking at ArtConf right now on Anatomy of Culture and I took all these research that I’ve been doing for years and put together software models to explain the dynamics of human behavior is predictably irrational. I broke down the models in terms of culture as an emergent magnet that emerges from the interaction of all the humans and broke down the humans into these little machines but essentially, it creates a useful predictable framework for understanding the dynamics of emotional flow across human systems.
What I heard, you describe with this alignment of appetite, is all these people are kind of in the room and there were this tension and this disagreement and the focus was shifted such that all the people started looking at this canvas on the wall and incorporating their dreams and the things that they were seeing as part of this canvas that became this artifact, this dream, this vision that belonged to everyone to take a hand in kind of creating and owning. Once everyone had this shared appetite for the same dream, they had resonance with that same vision, same dream that they were putting together as a whole, then everyone became engaged in how do we do that and that’s where the dissonance melted away and all this power came from essentially alignment of appetite toward the shared resonance.
REIN: Janelle, you said a magnet. Is that because magnets are structures where the micro-crystalline structure is aligned in the same direction?
JANELLE: In this case, I was trying to break down the common patterns that I’ve seen at all layers of abstraction. I’m looking at magnet in a functional abstract sense. I’ve got two magnets: one of them being a tension magnet and the other one being a resonance magnet and the tension magnet operates with different seeking and a resonance magnet operates with similarities seeking. What I started doing is looking at the push/pull of emotions as a kind of baseline and then looked at if we imagine that humans have this capability to operate in one magnet or another, so your brain is like a shape to a brain that’s looking out for shapes in the world and we can look for similarities and we can look for differences.
When we’re in one mode or another, like where we can be in survival mode, which is often relief seeking mode, which is associated with our tension magnet, where we’re looking for differences and then, we’ve also got this resonance mode where we’re oriented toward finding similarities, finding resonance, finding togetherness and we end up in this beauty seeking mode.
When I think about what is this gravity that brings people together, what is this the quality of quality, I think it’s beautiful and I think it’s probably beautiful in a mathematical definition of mathematical harmony almost of that resonant-seeking mode. We used the term emotion to mean things that in this sort of new world, new paradigm, emotions start to mean something very different and I feel like we should bag the word ’emotion’ in this context just because it’s inadequate to describe this sort of new way of seeing the dynamics. I feel like we need the word. I like the word ‘flow.’ I think it’s a good word.
TOM: I like what you’re doing with that and I tried something similar to use a model of sort of batteries — batteries that store up and release emotions or tensions. I love the magnet idea. That’s really cool. I think it’s reflective of our attempt to try and find some metaphor or language to talk about how emotions work or how we can create some sort of alignment there and I struggle with that. That’s really challenging for me. I have a hard time, if I’m honest, number one, expressing a meaningful emotional model and number two, trying to find a way to put it into useful practice. I think that’s relatively unexplored territory, at least for guys like me.
JANELLE: My background is in poetry and music and so, I have like this past life as a singer, songwriter and so, as I got into software, that turned into this really kind of trippy, cool skill and then I could take all of these feeling-oriented kinds of things and look inside myself and first translate these ideas to like poetic shapes of like, “This is like a tree,” and then I could work my way from poetic shapes to more functional forms and things that I could actually model in software constructs. What I found in this journey of working toward refining all these things in software is all models are wrong, some are useful and I think there’s enough predictive utility in the paradigm that even if it’s wrong, whatever that even means, it’s worth refining anyway because it’s a useful lens and construct to be able to observe the world, to be able to explain dynamics, to be able to improve the quality of the decisions that we’re making in our organizations and acknowledging our whole human cells, like bringing our whole cells to our organizations, to the world and figure out how do we sort of pivot the paradigm of the world where we’re optimizing for the wellbeing of life.
It’s like we get so obsessed with what does the machine want? Who cares about what machine wants, right? It’s like the machine is the one thing that doesn’t actually have feelings, that doesn’t actually care. It’s an artificial construct that sitting out in their minds that we’re optimizing for this entity. What does the business want?
I think with technology advancing, we’re hitting this fork in the road non-linear shift of our times, where culturally, we’re going to have to choose what type of future do we want to build? What do we want to optimize for? What is quality? How do we bring these two sides together that see things in a different way, that are playing different games, that are both engaged and excited about this dream and vision and bring the world together around? What is the shared dream that we want to create?
TOM: I think ultimately, the organizations that are able to figure this out, that are able to behave more as emotionally responsive: living, thinking, breathing organizations, are the organizations that will probably unlock productivity or real value, much faster than organizations that operate as machines or think they operate as machines? I think that being able to wrap our heads around this question and I really admire the way you put it is really at the heart of kind of getting to the next level, if you will for many organizations. I think this kind of understanding is really fundamental.
JOHN: If you know emotional metaphors, there’s one that I’ve been given to talk about called ‘Your Emotional API,’ where I am using API as a metaphor for the way emotions behave in the individual level. It’s not really complete and I don’t think it applies particularly to the context in which we’ve been talking about feelings here, which is a very different level but I just want it to throw that out there. But I think what’s really interesting is one of the phrase that you used earlier in the episode was talking about the processes inside the company as living systems, living processes. It’s a subtle change in name from thinking about it as a system of living things to a living thing/living system but to me that really, really changes my thinking about how the system works and how it’s going to behave. The fact that it’s made up of living things, makes it a living system and to me, just that change in vocabulary actually makes me think about it differently so I thought that was really interesting.
TOM: I started to look at it differently because if it’s a living system, there are a couple of attributes I might look for. I might look for its pulse. What’s the pulse of an organization? What does that mean? What is the blood pressure for an organization like that? If I start using these living metaphors, when I’m approaching an organization, that changes the way I look at it and I start dropping some of the framework specific approaches that I normally go to and some of the mechanical approaches and I start asking questions about what is the emotional pulse of this organization? What is the product pulse of this organization? Those sorts of questions and how do I measure that? How do I change it? How do I influence it? And I don’t have all the answers here. This is why I start talking in woo terms because I don’t know. This where, I think there’s some really exciting work to be done where you can start asking these questions and finding out how we can influence or help people and organizations flow better.
REIN: Tom, I have a question for you. Have you ever heard of cybernetics?
REIN: Stafford Beer has, I think he calls ‘The Viable System Model.’ You were talking about what is the pulse or the heartbeat of a system and The Viable System Model Bell System is an attempt to take an analogy from the human nervous system and apply it to how organizations are structured and so, he talks about organizations have their sensory inputs, the systems that are in touch with the external world. That could be your sales team, your customer support team, software engineers that write code and that goes out into the world and then at the top level, you have the brain and you have every level in between and how do messages flow, how does that move around the system? Some has to go from one system to another. Some has to go travel up the system and then back down the system and how does all of that work? And this idea of like what is the pulse of a system reminds me a lot of that.
TOM: Cool. You know, I wasn’t familiar with that.
REIN: He talks specifically about algedonic communication, which is pain and pleasure signals. Pain and pleasure signals go up, the organization to the brain, then the brain goes, “That hurt. We got to stop doing that,” and then some sort of instruction comes back down.
TOM: Awesome. I’m going to check into that.
JESSICA: This has been very exciting. At the end of the show, we usually do reflection.
JANELLE: Why don’t we strive to like see if we can summarize our reflection into like a punchy really good sentence like if I’m left with one thought, what would it be kind of reflections. I think it would be nice today because there’s been so many things. I feel like one of the best things we can do is make an awesome sentence.
JESSICA: Okay, okay. I got one. When the language gets woo-ey, the ideas might be new-y.
REIN: That’s amazing. I’m going to need like two sentences but I’ll try it. Tom, you talked about quality as being an emotional response. Gerry Weinberg said the quality is value to some person and both of these mean that quality is individual. It’s personal. Many different people can have different definitions of quality for them. There is no one universal thing that is quality for this system. It is subjective and inner subjective and this for me is very much in line with this idea of understanding how emotion flows through a system that’s made of humans.
A lot of organizations think, more or less carefully about how other forms of information flow but I don’t know of any of that actually consciously, pay attention to how emotion flows in a system. In a system that’s built of humans, there’s no way that that’s not happening and I think that we all would do well to be more aware of what that means for our teams, for our customers, for our definition of quality as a measure of our system and all sorts of things.
TOM: Cool. My sentence I think would be that the best ideas are often found in uncomfortable places.
JESSICA: That’s like mine but less silly.
REIN: I cheated by making mine run on sentence.
JOHN: Systems of living things are living systems.
JESSICA: Very pithy. Thank you. Janelle, are you feeling pithy?
JANELLE: One of the earlier things you said about how you comment to an organization and the first thing you do is kick back and observe. Sit in a room and do discovery. Don’t assume you understand already when you walk into a room and let that understanding be emergent through the process of observation and all of these models and lenses and ways of seeing can help us better understand the dynamics in those system. But in order to be able to see those differences from where we are already, we have to get to a state where we can just kick back and observe.
TOM: Very cool.
JESSICA: Awesome. Thank you, everyone.
TOM: Thank you for what was a wonderful conversation to all of you.
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