This Era’s “Great Project,” Revisited

The first post I wrote here, close to six years ago now, talked about a friend who bemoaned the fact that he wasn’t working on something singularly and identifiably great. My contention then was that, while the specific work wasn’t seen as great by the average person, it was indeed great because of its place in the larger sweep of history.

Yeah, yeah, I know this is bordering on sententious twaddle, but stay with me here. 😄

I took a lot of interesting notes while reviewing forty hours of material last week to renew my Scrum certifications, and I’ll write about and talk about those going forward, but today I wanted to highlight one particular idea. The specific thing that jumped out at me was the feeling that the conception, design, building, maintenance, and administration of ever larger, longer-to-build, longer-lasting, and more complex software systems is teaching humanity a lot about communication, organization, cooperation, adaptability, robustness, mutual respect and support, and belonging, and that’s an exciting thing to be a part of.

But then I thought, how much of this is really new? Large groups of people have always been organized to accomplish various ends, with examples being the pyramids and other great monuments and structures, military forces, government bureaucracies, and corporations. Indeed, the Tower of Babel story from the Christian Bible is all about the limits of how large a group can get before it becomes unmanageable. Certainly there have been large scale modern efforts like the space program and current infrastructure projects, and it’s clear that smart people have always been trying to organize them better.

I recently read an article, which I can no longer locate but will link here if I find it, that (I think) described how Michelangelo used a very flexible, adaptive process as he was guiding the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. A number of architects had worked on the design over a long period of time (one of whom built wooden models for seven years before being replaced), but what made Michelangelo different was that he arranged the work in a way that allowed things to be tried by actually being built, but then quickly disassembled and changed, if necessary, after quickly seeking feedback from the extant Pope. This ensured that work was always directed toward the actual construction and not endless models and drawings that didn’t give true understanding of the reality. This example may not be about organizing large groups of people, but it is about finding efficient ways to seek and act on continuous feedback. As this was the last great project of Michelangelo’s career, he had doubtless learned an awful lot about what worked and didn’t work in the service of making his customer happy. His assistant was left to carry on after the his death, and continued to make changes in response to feedback, even as he worked mostly according to the master’s plans.

A large military force might be thought of as the most hierarchical thing you can think of, right? But there are hierarchies and there are hierarchies. General George S. Patton, in leading the Allied forces toward Berlin in the latter stages of World War II, said “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” I once suggested to my favorite platoon sergeant that the US military would be better than the Soviet military because our troops are trained to be more independent. He retorted, correctly, I think, that in a situation where people find themselves without their assigned commanders, “a leader will emerge,” and they’ll carry on with their full intelligence and capabilities. Bad things happen when control is held too tightly, as in the case where German commanders were afraid to act without direct permission from a sleeping and not-to-be-disturbed Hitler (at least as depicted in the movie The Longest Day) as the Allied forces landed at Normandy. The takeaway here is that organizations need to be flexible and adaptive enough to utilize the best ideas and energies of all participants. Those that do this better will tend to succeed; those that do this poorly will tend to fail.

Steve Jobs said similarly, applicable to a corporate setting, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Here’s a description I wrote about a client’s existing process my company automated:

The company’s original process was fascinating. They had a formal system arranging documents in customized, 3–section folders representing each person in the company being considered for insurance coverage. All documents were punched with two holes near the top and were secured in the folders by built-in brass paper fasteners. The company then had a system for gathering the folders for all of a company’s employees and shuffling them around en masse so they could be processed by different groups of employees. The individual folders would be scored by the underwriters themselves, and would sometimes be routed to staff physicians or to personnel who would contact the employee’s doctors to ask questions about things in their medical records. (Since the personnel making these calls were not medically trained this sometimes annoyed the physicians they called.) The whole process was extremely clever and it was amazing what they had been able to accomplish with just folders, labels, and pushcarts. If you’ve read any of Jack L. Chalker’s Well of Souls series of science fiction novels you may remember that some of the regions on the planet where most of the action takes place were subject to various limits on the technology that was allowed to work. In particular he described a race of frog-like beings called the Makiem who lived in a low-tech region that only allowed muscle, wind, and water power. Nonetheless they had arranged a system of tubes and ramps that supported a semblance of advanced communication, distribution, and movement. It was not so long ago that all businesses and organizations had to operate using similar methods. The advent of computers has wrought a world of change.

Charles Darwin’s observations of natural phenomena led him to gel the impressions of his age into one of the most powerful insights in human history, that of self-organizing systems and emergent order. He didn’t necessarily put his findings into those words, but his many successors did, including the great economist Ludwig von Mises (though one of his students, Friedrich Hayek, is often given more credit for this line of thinking). These insights are being leveraged increasingly by managers, organizations, and agile practitioners to create working groups that are ever flatter, more autonomous, and self-organizing. It’s a big and often scary leap, but it’s an extension that goes beyond what has come before, and that’s the exciting part.

It seems that every generation has to learn from the wisdom of the past and adapt it for its own use. Technology may change, but the basic problems of life and human nature never do.

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