Agile and Science (and Politics?)

Agile is, fundamentally, an evolutionary mindset. Perhaps this is what makes it so controversial. Perhaps this is what makes it so hard to do right.

To see why, we need to dig into what exactly it means for something to be “evolutionary.” Here let’s not turn to any work on Agile, product work, or org design, but instead dip into the history of philosophy, politics, and science. For our guide we will use Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors, likely one of the most important books of the last several decades.

In it Rauch argues that, quite contrary to popular belief, what makes science science is not that it is empirical. Personal experience, after all, is empirical, and yet does not count as science. For science, what counts is not the experience or expertise of any particular person, but of no one in particular. What distinguishes science, Rauch asserts, is that it is fundamentally an open, decentralized, and social system.

Thus, modern science, Rauch argues, is evolutionary, not mechanistic. Evolutionary theory, through Darwin, was greatly influenced by Adam Smith. Smith in turn was influenced by John Locke. Rauch quotes Bertrand Russell commenting on Locke, and here it is well worth looking at the fuller passage (from Russell’s 1947 Philosophy and Politics, emphasis added):

Locke, who first developed in detail the empiricist theory of knowledge, preached also…the system of checks and balances. Few of his doctrines were new, but he developed them in a weighty manner at just the moment when the English government was prepared to accept them. …he was only reluctantly a rebel, and he disliked anarchy as much as he disliked despotism. Both in intellectual and practical matters he stood for order without authority; this might be taken as the motto both of science and of Liberalism.

(Hmm. An open, collaborative, decentralized system that produces an emergent, robust order without authority? This is starting to sound like Agile, isn’t it?)

To continue on Rauch’s tour, Locke advocated that we rule by rules, not by persons. Adam Smith took this approach to governing and applied it to economics. Charles Darwin then leveraged this and applied it to biology. Modern philosophers, like Karl Popper, then applied this thinking to science as a whole.

The thread running through all of this is the deemphasis of central planning and privileged positions, of pretending we can know the future or declare immutable truths, and replacing it with a humbler, more skeptical, and social approach focused on systems and not personalities.

Whether applied to determining power (democracy), allocating resources (economics), or legitimizing belief (social falsifiability), the underlying system is the same open-ended, decentralized, and competitive process wherein we all play by the same rules. This, Rauch argues, is “liberal science” in a nutshell. Liberal science is based on a foundation of evolutionary epistemology, not revelation (as in religion), deep reflection (as in Plato’s Republic), or clever single experiments (as in the older, mechanistic view of science); rather, our knowledge evolves and consensus drifts.

Just as a democracy needs a diversity of political inclinations, so too does science need a diversity of arguments and interpretations. Authoritarianism of any flavor, whether coming from the creationist, the diehard Marxist, or the dreaded HiPPO, trumps the process of scientific empiricism and makes an enemy of the sort of productive conflict that an evolutionary epistemology both requires and thrives on.

If the goal is to embrace such empiricism, then one must also accept that there is no certainty and thus no final say. There is no philosopher king tapping the immutable truths of heaven. Scientific empiricism thus dethrones Plato’s vision, replacing it with scrutiny by the lowly masses. As Rauch puts it, whether you compete in dollars, votes, or criticism, no idea is fixed or final.

This makes knowledge public property and obviates privileged authority. No idea is exempt. In Rauch’s words, a “statement is established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker and regardless of the source of statement.” This shows us the rules of liberal science, which are:

1. No final say.

2. No personal authority.

That’s it. No idea gets special privilege because of who had it. No one’s work is above being checked or improved by others. Instead, increase the diversity of ideas and then let the system improve them. Throw all claims into the fire of public empirical scrutiny. Observe which turn to ash and which are forged and fortified.

Again quoting Rauch, “Knowledge evolves as hypotheses compete under pressure from criticism, with intellectual diversity providing the raw material for change.” Whether talking politics or science or, in the case of Agile, product strategy, the revolutionary insight here is to rule by rules not by rulers and to place the focus on the system not the players.

And this, in a nutshell, is why Agile remains so damn revolutionary in most organizations: The philosopher kings, whoever they happen to be at any given time, simply won’t have it. This is not to say planning serves no purpose. It obviously does, but to the extent that it is our egos obstructing more fruitful ways of working, then our egos might be—in true Buddhist fashion—not just a root cause source of suffering but, ultimately, of waste.

Consider, if the best approach to product strategy is a scientific empirical one—which also means that it is open-ended and decentralized, then those at the top are in some very apparent ways less essential than they often want to be. No special privilege and no final say, remember? Alas, we continue to pull for the philosopher king or queen. As Rauch notes throughout his book, we seem to desperately want Plato to be right. In our insatiable desire for “final truth” we want to let the “wisest person” have final say—but it’s an illusion.

Ignoring this, we continue to frame the unanticipated as a “problem,” reflecting more a traditional plan point of view. We don’t treat it as learning to be celebrated, reflecting a more truly agile or evolutionary point of view. (To quote Jeff Patton, “Scope does not creep. Understanding grows.”)

We continue to insist that “success” be framed in terms of delivering something specified in the past, when we necessarily knew less about the work, the problem, and the world.

We send ourselves on org-wide fool’s errands, claiming we are “scaling Agile” by erecting a behemoth Tower of Babel attempting to get around complexity and the reality of planning horizons (which, ironically, are what require real agility in the first place).

We continue to reward being “right,” which is a far cry from optimizing an antifragile system do its thing.

Interestingly, Rauch’s book, which is not about product work or Agile, tells both why Agile is so revolutionary and why it is so hard to embrace: Those accustomed to authoritarianism will find evolutionary systems very difficult to tolerate.

This is true for politics and economics, and perhaps it is true for product work. We are not philosopher kings and dictators need not apply. We are not gods and product work is not intelligent design. The creationist approach to product work needs to be left behind.  

Read more here.

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