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Interview: Linda Rising on Collaboration, Bonobos and the Brain

by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on May 21, 2007 |
Linda Rising is well known in Agile circles as co-author (with Mary-Lynn Manns) of "Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas". At Agile2006 she kicked off the week with her talk "Are Agilists the Bonobos of the Software Community?" and seasoned practitioners packed the small room to hear her share her thoughts on the evolutionary roots of teamwork. In this 30 minute InfoQ interview, Rising talked with editor Deborah Hartmann about how the research for her book "Fearless Change" led her to read on the science of the human brain and the social rituals of apes.
I got interested in the brain through writing the “Patterns for Fearless Change”. ... [My] interest in the brain kept getting wider and deeper, as I learned about influence strategies and how to convince other people of good ideas. It’s something we in the Agile community struggle with. We come to a conference like Agile2006, we go to a couple of sessions, we get all excited about trying pair programming or test driven development, and then we go back home, and on Monday morning we face a team of people who struggle with deadlines and getting through the day and they really don’t want to listen, they don’t want to hear about new ideas; they are resistant. Then we struggle with how to get these exciting ideas into practice.

I thought it was a matter of logic. I’m a logical person, you’re a logical person, the people on my team are all smart logical people, so if I want to introduce something like pair programming ... all I would have to do is outline the logical reasons for why this is a good thing ... [It] turns out to be that we don’t really make decisions logically.

Trained as a mathematician, Rising at first resisted the idea that the unconscious played a role in solving logical problems:
... it seems like a strange topic for someone who has been in the software industry for as long as I have. But I think everybody in software would be interested in the brain and what we believe about the brain and how we use our brains, and maybe how we could use our brains better.

... We shouldn’t struggle logically and try to introspect looking for solutions, “What’s the best way to do this? Let me think about it”. The conscious mind has a limited amount of information and limited processing power. It’s serial as a processor, whereas the unconscious can multi task. The analogy with computers is the logical part of the brain is like the display, the unconscious is CPU, that’s where all the power resides.
Rising's amusing talk was replete with images of Bonobo apes and description of the sexual social rituals that are part of their share-and-share-alike culture.
... the talk that I gave here might have seemed to some people a little frivolous. I was talking about chimpanzees and bonobos. What I was trying to point out is evolutionary roots for a lot of things that our brains are hardwired to do. And when we considered the success of Agile development, I think we have to look at those evolutionary, biological roots and say: “Maybe the reasons why pair programming works so well, or the idea of keeping teams small, is that we are hardwired to perform best in that kind of environment”.
Listen to the InfoQ interview: Linda Rising on Collaboration, Bonobos and The Brain

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Nice analogy - I relate this to Theory of Constraints by Juan Bernabo

In my opinion the bonobo or chimpanse analogy I take it just as analogy, I have seen both behaviors on humans so I cannot think this differents behaviors came from diferent genetic ascendants, don´t like to push metaphors too far, but they are usefull. Maybe I don´t know all the details, so.

Anyway I think this is good to have a metaphor that we can use to reason, to free us from other models, and for me that´s enough, this ideias resonates with my own experience.

I think we are not prepared yet is to fully understand the constraints we have in effetive communication, thinking, conceptualizing, we tend to see human comunication, human behavior and thinking skills as unconstained activities but they are not.

Problably, don´t really read about it, but my experience supports that our brain have a lot of constraints, we don´t really understand yet.

Also analysis wich is our conciense prefered tool, is not a good tool for understanding complex systems, so we need to start creating ways to tap into the unrealized potential of our subconcient and intuition that are more adequate for this tasks.

I see intution, as a powerfull processor for deep cause and effect parrallel boolean evaluations, every time we ask a question to ourselves we have an answer a gut response for yes or no without detailed analitical explanation of facts, when we start analysing we mess things up.

If this is a constraint maybe is better not to try to explain things in a lot of detail but to use a ritual of food sharing would be more effective, to improve our believing skills in other people ideias even not understanding them fully.

This constraints are like physical constraints, we are equiped with intuition about rules in a physical world, it´s just plain stupid to make a machine do two things simultaneusly, but we try to do it all the time with people, we really can´t see this kind of constrain in people. Or be in two places at the same time, in our physical world we understand this is impossible, but we try to do it on our conceptual worlds.

So constraints are not bad thing, they are very real and part of our reality, but we tend not to recognize that they "exists", and effectly subordinate everything to this constraints, like face to face communication, and then elevate this constraints, like skill and team building in a team thru peer programming.

It´s good to know that the software industry problably will be one of the introducers of principles, values and practices more effectible aligned with kwnoledge workers constraints massivally, this is a welcome and needed revolution in our work world.

Juan.

Re: Nice analogy - I relate this to Theory of Constraints by Deborah Hartmann

Juan, thank you for your thoughts. You wrote:

> ...my experience supports that our brain have a lot of
> constraints, we don´t really understand yet.
> ...
> This constraints are like physical constraints, we are
> equiped with intuition about rules in a physical world,
> it´s just plain stupid to make a machine do two things
> simultaneusly, but we try to do it all the time with
> people, we really can´t see this kind of constrain in
> people. Or be in two places at the same time, in our
> physical world we understand this is impossible, but we
> try to do it on our conceptual worlds.

I laughed when I saw this, because I am currently in the middle of facilitating a 3-day RecentChangesCamp event in Montreal (called RoCoCoCamp), with people who are very used to collaborating "in two places" (both where they are internationally, and on wikis which are virtual workplaces). Something I've heard a couple of times during the event how our meeting face-to-face here is generating some amazing breakthroughs for them - even for people who have collaborated before online, and for subjects discussed many times before!

We're using the OpenSpace method to run the conference... which explicitly encourages people to listen to their "gut feeling" and follow their intuition to find fruitful synergies and like-minded discussions. This is very strange for some, at first. And yet, it works every time. When we make space for the unconscious to contribute to what we are doing, some amazing things happen, seemingly by magic! Oh, and "do food" is an important part of this conference - by design! :-)

I don't understand what you are getting at here, in relating this to TOC:

> So constraints are not bad thing, they are very real and part of our reality, but we tend not to recognize that they "exists", and effectly subordinate everything to this constraints, like face to face communication, and then elevate this constraints, like skill and team building in a team thru peer programming.

Can you say more about this "subordinating" we do? Is it a positive or negative thing, in your opinion? Are you talking about sub-optimization, or something else? I am interested to hear more.

thanks
deb

Re: Nice analogy - I relate this to Theory of Constraints by Juan Bernabo

Deb,

The problem cames when we don´t "subordinate" things to existing constraints.

Theory of constraints talks about system improvement and subordinating is one of the 5 focusing steps to cause improvements in a complex system.

Take a look at it:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_constraints

A constraint is like a broken car in a road, even the capacity of the whole road is big, one single broken car is limiting the trougthput of all the "system", we cannot improve the system trying to go faster, it would makes us slower, so we need to subordinate to this constraint, so we slowdown first.

So intuitively we already learned this 5 steps in the physical world, need to learn how to apply to the knowledge world.

Note the use of the word "cause improvement", we can´t just improve systems directly, when we try more problems are created, but we can cause improvements, sometimes changing something not directly related, like for instance software development life cycle.

My experience with organizations, teams and people, including my self is that when I try to push for a change I normally get the same amount of resistance that I´m pushing, or it doesn´t show resistance, it moves but after a while it returns to the same behavior or state it was before.

So TOC says that these are undesired effects of some low level cause, and TOC normally relates this very source of a lot of udesired effects to a paradigm, or how we meassure the system, that is aligned to the paradigm in use, for instance if we meassure sucess as not deviation from planned.

If really there are constraints in our brains, things we are hardwired, and we really have concrete limits, better listen to them and "subordinate" everything to this constraints, not try to work against them or ignore them as they are "real".

So the way we work, communicate, plan, learn, execute or whatever has to be designed around this constraints, they must be "subordinated" to them, and not try to ignore them. If you ignore them you will get a lot of undesirable effects and you will be lost into a lot of fire figthing, things you created in first moment for not "subordinating" things to the constraints we have.

For instance there are some evidence that our learning habilities are dramatically dropped when facts are separated in time and cause and effect are deal by different people, so our brains cannot capture cause and effect and we cannot relate one to another, so we simply don´t learn, even we reapeat again and again the same uneffective thing, at vomitum.

That´s the only explannation possible for some organization that try waterfall once, fail and continue trying and failing, things are really far away in time so our brains cannot relate cause to effect and effectibly learn.

The ones who experiment the undesirable effects are not the same as the ones that caused it, and things are separated in time, so no learning can happen.

So having the people that defines what to do and the ones that produces together and the definition the realization close in time too will take care of this constraint and solve a lot of undesirable effects too.

What do you think?


Juan

Too bad the bonobos are dying out . . . by Bruce Fancher

Too bad the bonobos are dying out . . .

great interview Deb by Michael James

I've linked to it from here:
danube.com/blog/michaeljames/aping_the_bonobos

I'd like to see more studies of social behavior as applies to Agile development and teamwork.

--mj

Re: great interview Deb by Deborah Hartmann

Thanks, Michael. I just taped one with Joseph Pelrine, but it will be a while before it's edited and written up :-)

Re: great interview Deb by Michael James

My first review of the Linda Rising interview was too risqué or something, and had to be rewritten. I guess the topic does make people uncomfortable, which could be a clue that it's important.

My other favorite was your interview with Ron Jeffries on Running Tested Features. I give out that link to my students.

--mj

Please do not adjust your set... by Deborah Hartmann

We're having technical difficulties with the layout of this page, for some mysterious reason. Please enjoy the video and bear with us on the layout issue while we investigate. Thanks. Deb

Re: Please do not adjust your set... by Deborah Hartmann

Problem fixed. Now, isn't that better? :-)

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