Not Even Wrong – A few words on Agile, Pirates and Egalitarianism

April 2015

Spring in Budapest

Spring in Budapest

Budapest, Corvine Center Suites

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

– Arthur Ashe

Sounder advice than that provided by Mr. Ashe might not have been uttered. I’d say it’s good advice in any context, but to me it’s particularly potent when it comes to writing. Writing is hard, and writers block is indeed a thing. So, once again I’ll heed mr Ashe’s advice and start where I am.

As it turns out, I currently find myself in Budapest, where I thought I’d spend some time reading and writing – and perhaps more importantly – symbolically close down one era of my life, while ramping up for the new days ahead. It’s far less dramatic than it sounds, I’m only switching jobs – but for me that’s no small thing. I invest heavily in the work I do, and parting with colleagues-become-friends is a rather difficult thing for me. It touches the centre of my soul.

But never mind all that sentimentality now. I’ve made some progress with my writing, even though I still allow my mind to wander a tad too much. It thought I’d let you in on my current area of procrastination. It began with pirates.

Not the digital kind of pirates, mind you. The actual sea faring kind. Now, I became fascinated with how the pirates governed themselves after seeing it portrayed in movies and TV-series. It seemed to me as an approach well ahead of its times, given that the golden era of Piracy was back in 1600-1700, so I decided to investigate the truthfulness of all that. As it turns out, the pop culture accounts are all rather close to the truth.

For instance, a pirate crew did select their own captain by way of vote, and they held counsel where every man (yes, man – it was a very manly environment) had equal vote. This stands in stark contrast to the other forms of governing that existed at the time (and mind you, in contrast to what exist today – did you vote for your CEO?). These “laws of the sea”, are sometimes referred to as a “Hydrarchy”.

So, it turns out that freedom, and hence egalitarianism, were very important values for the pirates of yorn, which makes sense as they rebelled against the inhumane treatment portioned out by the “upper classes”. And they lived the theories they espoused. Pirate crews could consist of men of all colour, religion and nationality – a very unusual thing at the time.

This has led me to a path where I read up on all sort of revolutionaries, radicals and outlaws (currently reading: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s “Guerilla Warfare”). These movements constitute a most fascinating field of study, because they have chosen to rebel against convention – often in search of freedom – yet they too need a way of organising themselves in order to achieve their goals. Considering that any alternative movement will – by default – be something other than the “establishment” which were/is governed by methods you are (perhaps all too) familiar with, these alternative organisations have the option to start with a blank page – their common ideals and values being the only thing that need to inform their designs for governing, decision making and so forth. This can of course backfire – George Orwell’s wonderful achievement “Animal Farm”, tells that story.

Yet, this is not so far removed from any movement that might bring about the future of work. There is a similar streak of egalitarianism running through the underlying ideals of both Agile and Lean. This leads us onward to the “new” forms of governing that have been gaining in (so far mainly theoretical) popularity in recent years, such as Sociocracy and Holacracy. At their core, these methods embrace an egalitarianism that is almost as radical today as it was back in 1600.

As I – and many others – have found: when Agile values are introduced into an organisation “bottom up” it will inevitably collide with management – and in a sense we can understand this friction as a result of egalitarian values being espoused in a non-egalitarian environment. The typical corporation is – after all – very much not a democracy. I think this explanation is a lot more interesting, and has a lot more potential, than the usual debate about low level process concerns such as “the management wants to know when it will be ready, those bastards!”. Wether we estimate or not, and how we do it if we do it, is simply not as interesting to me.

Even though I don’t think that the call for egalitarianism is (currently) as strong as the call for a genuine meritocracy, part of me wonders if that is just a question of an evolutionary phase. My feeling is that people – where they find themselves today – would be happy working in an undemocratic organisation, if they felt that the people in power just knew what the frakk they were doing. The common conception seems to be that this is seldom the case.

Now, if that is true, then the big question becomes: why is it so?

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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