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?

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