Quite the Renaissance, Ma’am

I find myself often taking ideas I see outside of the work place and finding homes for them in my job. The last couple of days caused some interesting resonation for me.

Outside of the work place, I like to read about political and cultural theory. Often it’s pretty dry stuff. It talks about ideas like the social apparatus and ideology. When I socialize, I tend to hang out with people who are interested in similar stuff.

The other day, in our project room, for some reason we started talking about something I’d read on a blog earlier that morning. Here’s the quotation:


Ideology is why you fall in love, naturally and sincerely and honestly, with someone of similar race and class and educational background. Ideology makes it so that millions of American women make individual decisions about their own personal happiness and take their husband’s name. Ideology does not lie to you, it does not oppress you, it does not stifle you. It makes you want the Right Thing, and then you want it. It’s not fake. It’s not submission. You want it, you choose it, you feel good about it. Ideology is what makes it so that when you really sit down and consult your heart and do what feels right to you, it supports the system.


I was really impressed by this quotation; I thought it nicely articulated a particular way that we all deeply internalize the culture in which we live, and the ideas that shape that culture.

As we were talking about the quotation, I pulled up another example: a few years ago, I was reading a copy of a magazine called AdBusters. AdBusters is particularly interested in a concept called “culture jamming” — doing things that shake us out blindly accepting the culture around us.

Anyway, in one issue of the magazine, a University professor was talking about his experience teaching a group of 20-year-old psychology students about the Milgram Experiment. The Milgram Experiment is somewhat famous because of the sobering conclusions that it made about how people react to authority. In short, what it showed was that people could be persuaded to do some pretty horrific things if they were told to do so by someone in charge.

The university professor described the reaction of a group of his students: “that couldn’t happen, today,” they said. According to his students, the current generation is far more suspicious of authority, and won’t just blindly follow orders. The university professor was dubious. He made a rather pointed comment: he pointed out that the group of students that were insisting that they would defy authority were essentially wearing near-identical outfits. It was hard to take seriously, he said, a claim that people now resist authority when they dress so uniformly.

But the point was lost on the students. From their point of view, the clothes that they wore were what they wanted to wear. Such wants were very different than the idea of following orders. The professor was never really able to make this point: how was it that all of those students wanted the exact same thing, and yet none of them would cop to the idea that their wants were influenced by something outside of them?

Becoming aware of the effect of ideology and the social apparatus is very hard because the first order of business is usually to learn to see that which you’ve previously treated as invisible.

So what does this have to do with agile methodology? Well, yesterday, I was interviewing someone. He was talking about his experience introducing Scrum into a large, conservative corporation: about some of his successes and frustrations. He made a comment that really resonated with me. He mentioned that one of the problems he ran into was getting people to see the stuff that wasn’t working.

He used an example: it takes too long to build the code. Many of the people just accepted that. It takes a long time to build the code, and therefore development is slow. What he was trying to do was to get his team to see that, first, as a problem, and second, as something that might possibly be changed.

When I hear a situation about something like that, I find myself wondering what the constraints are: why is the build slow? Are there parts that can be changed? Are there things that can be done without? But these people didn’t think about it in terms of constaints. The constraints were invisible. To them, it was just a fact: the build is slow; we can’t develop any faster. And, boy, do I recognize that mindset. I’ve seen it in so many organizations, it’s scary: the unwillingness to try to make things different than what they are.

And I am reminded of another psychology concept called Learned Helplessness. Wikipedia describes it this way: “learned helplessness [can] occur in everyday situations where continued failure may inhibit somebody from experiencing agency in the future”.

So, now, here’s an idea that I’m noodling on: that learned helplessness is a natural consequence of waterfall methodology. When Kent talks about a lot of the XP practices, he talks about how they make developers feel good. And he’s right, they do. The green bar makes me feel good. But I think the practices also do something else: they help us feel empowered. And that’s a huge thing.

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