Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

Archive for February, 2009

Rowing, steering or shouting?

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 11, 2009

On the shore, ready and willing to go!

On the shore, ready and willing to go!

Recently we had a discussion with an interesting man at a major company. This man wanted a team set up to develop tools for new services. He wanted to go with Agile, and we suggested some critical resources for a team (coach, teach lead…) alongside with some developers. This man was worried he would get too many steersmen, and not enough rowers. We finally convinced him that our people would also provide muscle for his ideas, and we then set up his team.

Then, later, I gave some thought to his worries: yes, you need muscle, rowers, for his dreams to come true, and for sure you need a steersman with strong hands. On the other hand, we frequently see many people around IT projects, which he might have called steersmen, but indeed the boats are not controlled so well, and these persons are not steering. So what are they doing? They are only sitting on the shore, shouting advices…

It is much more comfortable on the shore: the ground is stable, it’s less humid, you don’t risk falling into the river. But the race is won by people in the boat. Of course it’s some help to be supported from the shore. But if your best people are not on the boat, rowing or steering, you’ve got a problem.

It was always the case in the navies of the age of sail: captains and admirals had to go with their teams, in their ships. The majority of victims were not from actual combat, but from just sailing on the sea: from weather, the waves, scurvy… Captains and admirals had to suffer them as well. They had to go, because the means of communication and the distance required them to be close physically to be able to command. Of course, they needed good people in the offices, at the Admiralty, but they also needed strong captains in the ships.

Now, that is the same with our projects: we need strong people rowing and steering, because whatever you do the distance is too large with the people who are just shouting from the shore – not physically, but mentally.


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The Wave

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 3, 2009


After going straight in a direction with my previous post, I came across The Wave. I was fascinated by the experience it described, got a copy from the local library and finished reading it in parallel with a busy weekend. The Wave is a novel based on an experiment performed by an history teacher, when he wanted to teach about the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and the atrocities which came from the movement.

At first, the teacher used his authority and charisma to channel students into the experiment, discipline them into a more efficient group. Then discipline, peer pressure and the positive feeling of being part of a group took over as driving forces, making the group still stronger and more disciplined, more together. The teacher himself was then no more leading the movement – he was being lead and driven by it. Independent thinking was then felt as a threat to the movement – and thus to be condemned. Any objection was to be rejected.

I take many lessons from this story (as far as the book is true to the original experiment). One of them is that fascist monstrosities can be awakened any time, any place if we forget about the past. Another one is the power of the group as providing:

  • a sense of community, of being well together;
  • efficiency for some activities;
  • a relatively egalitarian environment, or at least leveling the traditional hierarchies of performance or popularity.

These are relatively positive characteristics, which makes group-imposed tyrannies the more dangerous. A group can be a wonderful environment, but it can also turn to be de-humanizing: a human being lost in a certain group with certain values can become a machine, losing critical mind and independence.

I appreciate that in all human systems, discipline and authority must be balanced by some regulation mechanism, especially when they are self-imposed by the group where they can be stronger and more cruel than when imposed from the outside. In the case of the experiment, the regulatory mechanism was the outside world, parents, other teachers, the principal, the history teacher’s wife, and himself. This mechanism played its role before it was too late.

How is that relevant to this blog? One reason amongst many: I have still more reasons to appreciate the value of thinking outside of the boundaries of the system, any system, thinking on it, thinking about it, understanding its mechanisms and meaning, while not being bounded by it. An illustration of the pattern is the retrospective practice used in Agile methodologies to look back, improve and make the team a better team. Here – hopefully – members of the group can reflect on it, criticize it and work together on improving it. Thus we avoid declaring as absolute what is only relative.

But, in itself, this experiment does not provide a proof against my thesis that discipline and authority can be good. It certainly provides a nice boundary to this declaration.

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An anarchist with an acquired taste for discipline

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 1, 2009

Discipline, discipline?
I hate to disclose it: at the core I am an anarchist, with an acquired taste for discipline and authority… At some point, I tended to avoid authority and discipline, not seeing its necessity. Indeed, I am mostly self-disciplined, and not wishing to get discipline from the outside, I was avoiding pressing it on others.

As personal as I feel about it, it is indeed a cultural trait of our time: paternal values of authority and discipline have been out of fashion for the last 40 years. The result is families where parents don’t so easily find their place. In the corporate world, managers want responsibilities, but don’t dare to use authority or to ask for discipline in their teams. This can result in indecision, hypocrisy, manipulation, or at the reverse to tyranny.

With my children getting older, and myself trying to be a better father for them, I have felt the necessity for pressing for discipline. Self-discipline is essential, but not sufficient and not always present. In periods of change or growth, parents have to use authority to establish discipline, and create the conditions for development of self-discipline.

In the corporate world, managers have to orient, channel and create the conditions for the right level of discipline – hopefully coaching their teams to self-discipline. Discipline goes along with consistency of effort, and both are required for getting results. That’s work, a lot of work. Hopefully, managers are getting better when they practice it, if they accept the challenge at every instant to balance between anarchy and tyranny.

As for myself, I am reading the Leader’s Handbook and hope to get better at getting results with my team. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll read that this post is irrelevant as based on the “old” “train-wreck” style of management – I am ready to be surprised!

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