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26 December 2008


Jay Fienberg

Great post - what you are talking about has many facets. And, I think there's an ongoing challenge to present these ideas in compelling forms that we all can digest and utilize in our work with information-driven organizations.

I think this is an interesting idea, but either overstated or in need of more exploration:

"Information is, by its very nature, subversive. Information tells you the right thing to do."

I think one could just as easily assert that "information is, by its very nature, oppressive. Information tells you the wrong thing to do."

As a conjecture: when has anyone every done the wrong thing without doing so based on some information?

Also, you could look at Stalin (etc) and observe that their tyranny was possible specifically because of how they shared information--and how they encouraged others to share information.

So, again (in our larger dialog with each other), I'd suggest that there's a fundamental issue around the *quality* of information that can override any quantity information.E.g., more information can be oppressive, if it's "bad" information.

Jim Benson

Awesome comment. I am working on a blog post now to answer it. I love that I'm going to write a blog post in answer to a comment to a block post that was an answer to two comments.

Bill Tozier

Pushing a little harder: I'm not sure but I think that there is often some set of circumstances for which any strategy will outperform any other. Some folks I know piss people off when they point out that Extreme Programming or "Agile" (whatever that is supposed to be) cannot be better in all cases.

It's a useful exercise to objectively explore realistic business cases where being (or becoming) "agile" or "lean" are bad ideas. There's nothing new in what we do, and we are not revolutionaries except insofar as we can understand more cases of the real world and arguably communicate them better.

The 21st century still involves moving metal objects around, and communication networks don't ensure efficient communication, and archives don't ensure knowledge capture, and politics don't transform smoothly into communitarian panarchy. And that's as it should be.

Nothing technological, cultural, social, or even philosophical happened after 2000, that didn't have a counterpart in 1900. Telegraphy and telephony and electrification and corporatization and stuff made Scientific Management possible... why should not our latest, super-enhanced versions of the same stuff not make Super-scientific Management the next big craze?

Or, shorter version: Every advantage from doing things "differently", for any difference, must have risks as well. And lacking universal adoption of the difference, there must be cases where these costs outweigh the benefits.

Jim Benson


Nothing is universally applicable. In fact, we don't presuppose any methodology is universally applicable.

We use principles to guide the creation of processes that apply to specific realities. Different teams require different processes.

Scrum or XP are fairly rigid in the out-of-the-box application. This ridigity is what people are bucking against - this one-size-fits-all approach.

The principles behind Agile - dynamic teams, frequent and short group meetings, ritualized communication, limiting work in progress - are all, I believe, universally applicable.

Some groups will want time boxed work-limiting mechanisms, others will be better suited for a kanban capacity style limitation. In the end, the principle is what needs to be kept in mind, and not the dogmatic application some guy invented for his particular project.

Bill Tozier

"The principles behind Agile...are all, I believe, universally applicable."

Hmmm. Nope. Can't give you that.

I agree that these principles have been underused in recent history, especially in business, and that there are fewer costs to changing in that direction nowadays.

But my challenge to you (and me) is to describe a scenario---which must exist, since agile practices are not ubiquitous and the world is full of diversity---in which the costs of agility outweigh the benefits. Or where the benefits of a traditional approach outweigh those of agility.

Besides Stalinism, that is. Something a little more local.

We could, for instance, think about whether oligarchies are still stable in agile organizations. And I think that in some cases they might be moreso.

I wholeheartedly agree that the costs of agility have been reduced, as communication and information-sharing costs are lower now (in real terms) than they used to be. And that opens up and changes a bunch of niches.

But if we're going to invoke biological metaphors, maybe we should think a minute about community assembly dynamics in real life. There's room for a lot of life history diversity in any biome. There are niches for "agile", nimble wanderers, and also slow, steady specialists. Predators and prey, producers and saprophytes.

In a natural community, big disruptions (like innovations) tend to open chances for new lifestyles. But these disruptions can also reinforce and enhance the old, established interactions as well. They can reduce diversity; give benefit to the big fish and stabilize the status quo.

Used to be the only people who were agile (in the sense we mean) were entrepreneurs. Now we can argue that bigger, more mature institutions can be agile too.

But the biological metaphor is sitting there instructively.

I'll buy a hat and eat it, if the complex changes in the economy and in business culture can't also make it more profitable and less risky (Pareto optimal, in other words) for some firms to become less agile. Under certain circumstances, in certain relations with other institutions.

I'm not arguing for some kind of conservation rule. Just saying that there have to be cases where agility is not the best thing for a firm. And so I'd like to hear when. :)

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