Will Evans – Heretics, High Priests, and Hagiolatry

It could be argued that tribes, communities of practice, organizations, and societies accrete symbolic systems that forge a common language over time to accomplish tasks usually related to the preservation, extension of power, and access to resources needed to continue to flourish and allow these networks within boundaries to feel a sense of agency and empowerment. Indeed, when one group or tribe within a larger ecosystem feels threatened or produces radical new ideas, the heretical rebels leverage common metaphors, symbols, and tactics to achieve strategic goals – at first rebelling against the existing power structure (writing manifestos, throwing molotov cocktail), supplanting the existing “high priests”. Eventually, though, they develop the same rituals that previous power structure utilized to maintain and extend their power base – the heretics eventually become the high priests of a new caste system and then anoint their own saints.

We have seen this evolution in social systems and the accretion of ‘webs of signification’ in the context of IT in general and software design and development in particular. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz said that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs,” which can inform our understanding of tribes in a software enterprise setting. With each new principled-based movement within IT, from RUP to Agile, to Lean Software, to Lean UX and more recently DevOps and Lean Startup, the new tribe has the need to extend it’s power base beyond the context for which it was originally intended. Even if each tribe armed with their own methods and practices makes sense at a given time and place, this does not necessarily mean it’s appropriate or strategic from a systems, wholistic, enterprise, or societal perspective.

This notion is important in making strategic decisions from an enterprise perspective in terms of which ideology to deploy, how to allocate resources, and how to ensure that across the portfolio of potential ‘bets’ the appropriate methods are deployed. This tension – between tribes that wish to enjoy greater agency by proselytizing their ideology and methods into other domains, and the needs of the organization, which seeks balance across multiple competing factions to actually achieve enterprise-wide goals, is the primary challenge faced by leaders.

We’ll explore these notions, and seek to understand the various roles (scout, pioneer, settler, town planners), practices, and methods that are either local-optima or more global in perspective, to seek to provide a framework for decision-making in uncertain and turbulent times. We’ll unpack the relationship between different horizons from probable to possible, and provide some heuristics for when things like Design Thinking or LeanUX are most appropriate, and when Agile, PMBOK, or ITIL frameworks might be the most authentic satisficing lens through which to make decisions.


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