Saturday, June 16, 2012

Which wolf are you feeding? Or... Why Empathy Matters.

Empathy, or putting yourself in someone else's shoes, is often thought of as a value. Science is discovering that it is actually an inherent biological trait, and it appears to be a key attribute necessary for our evolution...  I'd suggest it's correlated with the evolution of any complex system. This has huge implications not just for us as we interact with each other in our daily work, but for the human race as a whole now that technology enables us to be connected instantly and on a scale unthinkable until recently.

Primatologist Frans de Waal believes empathy is a not a uniquely human trait. In "The Age of Empathy" he describes animals experiments, (primarily with monkeys and apes) showing varying types of altruistic and empathic behavior. The experiments showed the animals displaying awareness of each others needs and not always acting in their own self-interest.

In Mark Goulston's "Just Listen" he explores the scientific discovers that explain the biological side of this...

“(Italian Scientists) studying specific nerve cells in macaque monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes found that the cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana. But here’s the surprise: these same cells fired when the monkeys watched another monkey performing these acts. In other words, when Monkey #1 watched Monkey #2 toss a ball, the brain of the first monkey reacted just as if it had tossed the ball itself."

The cells have been nicknamed 'mirror neurons', because they allow mirroring another's state of mind. I like to think of them as 'empathy neurons', but in the end the biological details aren't as significant as the evolved behavior itself. How nature does it isn't all that interesting to me.

While empathy appears to be an intrinsic part of our makeup it is not immutable, rather it is fragile. As Dr. Thomas Tomasello's decribes in “Why We Cooperate" children are inherently altruistic until they are taught otherwise. They can unlearn it through societal and cultural examples or it can be nurtured. The balance between selfish and empathetic behavior can be nudged either direction. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes this metaphorically in his book Buddha's Brain “…a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: ‘In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.’”

Which wolf are we feeding? If empathetic behavior can be nurtured, is that in fact what our society, and specifically our business culture is doing? Economoist Jeremy Rifkin has written about this and describes how the last 50 years of management practice have been built on the idea that we are essentially driven primarily by self-interest and that people are inherently lazy and need to be cooerced to work (Douglas McGregor's theory x in The Human Side Enterprise).  If one takes the other view, that we are inherently cooperative as new scientific research demonstrates, then what we should be doing is creating business environments where the cultural framework nurtures empathy... encouraging communication, trust, collaboration, authenticity, transparency, appeal to intrinsic motivation, etc. Does that start to sound like Agile and Scrum?

This matters now more than ever because thanks to technology and instant communication we are increasingly connected and have unlimited opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. In a follow-up I will explore the the huge upside of not squandering these opportunities. For now I'll just borrow Douglas Hofstadter's words "apathy at the individual level translates into insanity at the mass level", but I plan to turn it on it's head and paint a picture of what the mass level looks like with empathy at the individual level.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why the future belongs to the agile

In Mark Buchanan's book Ubiquity he describes how discoveries in science follow a power law distribution. Contributions are made to the sum of our knowledge on an ongoing basis, like grains of sand falling on a sand pile, but unpredictably any given discovery or insight can trigger the equivalent of a landslide. A common way this power law idea is expressed is the 80/20 rule. In the case of scientific discovery we could say that the most disruptive discoveries happen 20% of the time while smaller discoveries make up the other 80%.

Previously in history large change came about clustered in large cities where there was a large potential for information sharing. We are living in a time when ideas and discoveries can be shared instantly across physical, societal, and cultural boundaries allowing for change to accumulate at a faster and faster rate. In other words more sand-piles, more grains of sand falling, and bigger sand piles. Big changes, disruptive technologies are coming in our lifetime, and they will come unpredictably.

It is increasingly important for organizations to evolve in a way that makes them capable of adapting to change quickly. Scrum is much more than a way of delivering software every 30 days. Scrum is a mindset of being prepared to react, to shift gears when things change unpredictably, and they will.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Shaping reality and the Hatfield & McCoys

One of my favorite sci-fi book series is about a bickering family whose members have the ability to add and subtract things from reality to create their own parallel worlds. It's like the Hatfield's and McCoys on acid. They follow each other to parallel worlds and try to kill each other.

The series is Roger Zelazny's "The Amber Trilogy". The characters have the ability to add and subtract things from reality until the world looks as they envision they want it to be. Those trees should be slightly taller. The road should be gravel. The sky should be a light green, not blue... and so on. The alternate realities that they 'create' become reflections of themselves. It makes for a good story telling device because anything can happen. There are no rules around what is reality. I won't give away any more details in case you want to read it; I'll move on to why I'm writing about it.

We don't have the power that these characters have, but we do create our own realities on a daily basis. We add and subtract things every time we take an action that influences those around us, and every time we grow in a way that changes our own perception of reality. None of us exist in a vacuum. The things that we do and say affect those around us and we each change the world in small ways, we're always adding and subtracting things in a way that reflects ourselves, for better or worse.

Want to work in an environment where everyone appreciate's each other's work? How about letting someone know you appreciate something they've done? It doesn't cost anything to pay a compliment. Want to learn a particular technology? Start down that path. Today, with small steps. Add a book to your Kindle. Subtract a less important task from your life.

How can you make small changes today to shape your reality?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What does Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem have to teach Agile managers?

On Albert Einstein's 70th birthday he received a present from mathametician Kurt Gödel. What was the present? A detailed explanation of a logical contradiction in Einstein's general theory of relativity, basically saying that Einstein's theory itself proved that time doesn't exist. Yay! Happy Birthday! I'm happy if I can count the candles on the cake correctly. 

That doesn't mean, however, that I can't learn from the ideas of these giants, standing on their shoulders. As I've watched the landscape change in the software industry, with Agile and Scrum embracing the idea of emergent behavior in complex systems, I've wondered what other discoveries around complex systems apply to real-world scenarios in the business.

I can't teach the Incompleteness Theorem in this article. Douglas Hofstadter's 700+ page book "Gödel, Escher, Bach" communicates it as well as anything I've read, but I'll give you a sense of my understanding of it. Any sufficiently complex system cannot be fully self-describing. Hofstadter walks through the idea of a system who's job it is to prove theorems and shows step by step how the system can prove a theorem that says that the system itself cannot prove the theorem. (2+2=5 drawing by Douglas Hofstadter)

It reminds me of the riddle I pondered as a child, if God is all powerful and can do anything, can he create a rock that he cannot lift? Resolving that becomes a circular spiral of logic you can't get out of. An implication of Gödel's work is that, for example, we cannot as humans fully understand the working of our own brains (a complex system) sufficiently to create an equal intelligence, at least deterministically. The best we can hope for is to set up the conditions to grow something that may or may not evolve, but it will be by definition something we cannot fully understand.

OK... back to current reality, back to Agile management. There is some inherent risk in applying a conclusion from one domain to another, but I think this one passes the smell test. What I would say is that no organization built around a creative craft should aspire to fully controlling and understanding all it's internal processes... that it can be self-aware but at some point there is a ceiling beyond which greater control and greater self-awareness is impossible. Just as the most robust AI and artificial life systems evolve out of emergent behaviors, the most resilient organizations will evolve out of putting the right pieces in place, creating the climate for innovation and letting the system evolve without trying to deterministically control it. 

In Jim Collins "How they Mighty Fall" he talks about the question of how do you make people do the things needed to make a company great? His answer is you don't. You hire people that share your values and are self-driven. You can't make them do anything and if you're approaching the system that way you've already lost the battle. 

What do you see in your organization? Can you share examples of how command and control thinking failed and emergent behavior succeeded?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

My experience with language acquisition, music, and right-brain learning

If you took a year or two of a foreign language in high school, you probably know a few common phrases and some basic grammar, but you probably would have a great deal of difficulty communicating fluently in the language. It's not your fault, you may have studied quite hard. The reality is that method of learning does not work, in the sense that it can't make you fluent, just as learning to to read music won't make you a composer or a performer.

Our brains are not computers. If I say the word 'Grandmother', your brain doesn't perform a lookup in some database table to find a definition for Grandmother. You brain more than likely has deep associations, patterns burned into your neural pathways that form complex, perhaps deeply emotional memories about your Grandmother. Maybe she has passed. Maybe she is still with you and enriches your life. Maybe you can't stand her (I hope not.) Either way if I asked you to reflect about your Grandmother and how you feel about her, but use the word Abuela instead of Grandmother to refer to her, that word would eventually (if you revisit it enough) become associated with your Grandmother (the person, not the word), but not just in a left-brain, look it up in a table sense, but also in a right-brain and emotional sense. You will 'know' that word (or Grok it as Heinlein would say), in a holistic way. 

Being fluent isn't about doing translations fast in your head on the fly. Your brain is not fast enough to do that well. It is about words and the ideas they represent being inextricably linked, being one and the same, and that mental representation includes a complex web of memories and emotions.

Why do I keep talking about emotion? Well, think about it... what happens when you try to learn something that really interests you? How do you feel when you do that? How easy is it to learn something that excites you and fascinates you? It isn't hard. What about the opposite, something that you couldn't care less about? A dry book on some technology you have no intention of using for example. Your brain will have a really difficult time burning durable memories of what you're taking in. Your brain wants to remember things that it thinks are important, and if it isn't triggering any emotion on some level, it isn't important to your brain. 

A brilliant teacher in Minneapolis named Luis Rojas uses what I consider a clever hack built around this idea to shovel understanding of Spanish language into the brain. In his podcast he doesn't do vocabulary drills or grammar lessons. What he does is simply talk, in Spanish. His grammar is not very advanced, but it does require some basic Spanish understanding to follow. What happens though, when listening to the lessons, is a kind of slight of hand where he distracts the listener from the fact that he is teaching, in a way that allows the words he is saying to become tied to emotional memories. 

How does he do that? He paints a picture of events in his life that have emotional resonance for him. Seeing the email on his phone from his brother saying don't worry but he is in the hospital for a cardiac event. He knew reading between the lines that it was serious because his brother was a cardiologist and wouldn't contact him if it was something routine. Most of us have received some kind of email like this where the subject line puts a pit in our stomach. The telephone ringing at 3am feeling. In another podcast, sitting at his computer on a cold blustery Christmas eve, listening to the wind and the creaks of the house while his wife sleeps and he reflects on Christmas of the past, gatherings with friends from his past, and hopes and plans for the upcoming year. His speaking style is warm and conversational, like you and I would talk about our lives. Interweaved with the speaking is music, songs that were popular at the time of the whatever he is reflecting on, or just quiet piano music. Many of the songs are ones I associate with earlier times in my own life (music is very effective that way as a soundtrack for you life.) In doing this he conveys not just a message, but an emotional state.

The synergistic effect of his almost hypnotic delivery, the subject matter, and the music is it triggers memories of things in my own life that I've experienced. This creates a relaxed mental state where the left-brain isn't trying to catalog and store words for later recall, but where the words are being bound up with my own emotional memories. The end result? I forget I'm listening to Spanish. He might as well be speaking in English. It's like a Spock mind-meld. This cements a context and an understanding of the words well beyond what simple memorization would accomplish.

If you're learning spanish, check out his podcast at

Oh... and call your Abuela..

The power of a model

It's been said that, often to our disbelief,  we eventually turn into our parents. As different as I am from my Father, I often see some unexpected truth in that idea.

Why my Father was young he had visions of flying planes in the Air Force, something that wasn't meant to be. He ended up channeling creative energy into building highly realistic airplane models and became quite good at it. It was a passionate hobby for him. When I was young I also had a fascination with the idea of flying planes, specifically massive complex planes like the biggest jetliners and super-sonic transports. I remember having a huge poster of a 747 flight control panel on my bedroom wall and learning what each control did. I was fascinated by such a complex system being so powerful and meaningful and the idea of controlling it seemed magical.

Today I don't fly planes (well, except for simulations), but it occurs to me that I have the same obsession with models and complex systems, but models of a different kind. Growing up around plastic airplanes I had a bit of a mental block about 'model' referring to anything other than that and didn't really get it when I read about computer programs or mathematical equations being referred to as models. That was until I read a book about simulations and it explained it in a simple way that clicked. It described a model being something that is sufficiently similar to some other thing, sharing enough key attributes, that one can make observations about the model's behavior or poke and prod it to see what it does, and some of the results will be meaningful in drawing conclusions or predicting the behavior of the modeled thing. You can increase the weight of a model boat and see it sink, just like a real boat would, and if you have an equation that describes the physics of that, you can play with the variables in the equation to see the same result.

I know this sounds really obvious and simple, but once I thought about I started noticing models everywhere. When I noticed that one system (Thing1) shared some attributes with another different (Thing2), I started asking myself "What things happen with Thing1 that might also happen with Thing2?" In other words, what does Thing1 have to teach me about Thing2. That is a simple, but powerful idea. Maybe you could argue that it is a key part of human intelligence that we are capable of abstract comparisons that lead us to form novel conclusions.

The other day I was trying to explain a nuance of our service tier technology (the way that custom bindings are built with Microsoft's WCF) to a non-developer coworker, and my message wasn't making it a across. He was drawing the wrong conclusions. It occurred to me that choosing and assembling pieces for a WCF binding had some things in common with ordering menu items at McDonalds, picking and choosing items (custom binding) vs ordering a numbered menu item (out of the box binding). It isn't a perfect model, but it didn't have to be. Once I made some comparisons to that the concepts were now accessible and added clarity, not just for him but for less technical people who were listening. I think you can poke and prod the McDonalds menu model to see how it could break down, and you can easily see how Microsoft may have went wrong. I'll leave you to do that mental exercise but imagine just a few numbered menu items, but many things you have to choose just right or end up with something unpalatable.

In Jurgen Appelo's Management 3.0 he talks about breakthroughs that resulted from knowledge finally being shared between different disciplines (economists, biologists, mathematicians, etc) where independent models had been developed to model real world systems, but the models were sufficiently powerful to explain systems completely out of the originating domain. The systems themselves that are being modeled can be used as models for other systems. Think network routing protocols based on the behavior of ants and pheromone trails or approaches in machine learning like neural networks based on ideas about how the human brain stores knowledge.

I recently shifted from a role of writing software to a scrum-master role that involves writing a lot more emails and a lot less code. It calls for a different focus, on processes, people, and interactions. Fortunately for me it turns out that the model of writing good code has a lot to teach me about good practices in a non-coding role. The principles of coupling and cohesion, simple components, refactoring, eliminating redundancy can be as applicable at an enterprise level, describing how an organization can be structured to work well, as they are in describing good coding practices. It's not a perfect model (no model is), but sometimes thinking about an organization problem by finding a software coding analog and mapping back the solution in that domain yields new insights.

If you open your mind to noticing similarities between seemingly different things, viewing one as a metaphor or a model for another, you might find the model has things to teach you. When I observe something that surprises me or seems counter-intuitive, I try to ask the question, does this have relevance in other domains? I have more examples but I think you get the gist so I'll end it here for now.

What metaphors, analogies, or models have you encountered that taught you something?