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Q&A with Bob Marshall about the Antimatter Principle

by Ben Linders on May 22, 2014 |

Software development can be viewed as collaborative knowledge work. Such a view calls for different ways to manage organizations and the people who work in it. Bob Marshall maintains the blog think different in which he shares his ideas on changing the world of knowledge work.

Recently Bob wrote several blog posts about the antimatter principle. InfoQ interviewed him about this principle and the practices to use it to attend to the needs of people.

InfoQ: Can you explain the antimatter principle to the InfoQ readers?

Bob: In a nutshell: The Antimatter Principle is about creating a work environment where everyone feels able and willing to give of their best. People are naturally wired through millennia of evolution to help others. The most joyful thing we can do as human beings is to attend to each others' needs.

InfoQ: The principle is about attending to the needs of people. It sound obvious to me, so I wonder why people wouldn't do it more often?

Bob: We have been living in what Walter Wink calls a "Domination System" for the best part of 8,000 years. This system, for various reasons, educates and conditions us to believe in the Myth of Redemptive Violence - that is, in the belief that violence is the natural and effective way to get what we want. It's this system that lies at the root of the dehumanised and dehumanising workplaces so many folks have to suffer on a daily basis. And, incidentally, in the belief that the workplace is "no place for feelings, emotions and personal needs".

InfoQ: The "folks' needs" can be many things. Can you give some suggestions how people can find out what these needs are?

Bob: The most straightforward way is to ask people. That is, to encourage productive, skilled dialogue between everyone involved. Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg) offers one tried and tested method, but there are others too. See e.g. the works of Chris Argyris, Virginia Satir, Kerry Patterson, Bill Noonan, William Isaacs and David Bohm, to name but a few.

Examples of needs common to most folks: Rest, exercise, healthy food, learning & growth, fun, creativity, purpose, companionship, honesty, empathy, support, meaning, contribution... 

There's a fuller list here: Center for non violent communication – needs inventory

InfoQ: Why did you use the term "antimatter" for this principle?

Bob: It grew out of the "Antimatter Rule", itself an extension of the Platinum Rule (and the Golden Rule, before that). What's more valuable than Platinum, I asked myself. There are a few more valuable elements, but Antimatter jumped out as the most valuable and the most recognisable in the list - circa $17 trillion per gram. It's also has the greatest energy density of any possible fuel - NASA is considering using it to power deep-space missions. (More at: the antimatter principle – the metaphor ).

InfoQ: What is the value that people can get from applying the antimatter principle? Why would they use it?

Bob:There's a lot of interest at the moment in how to create work environments which actively support collaborative knowledge-work, as opposed to the much more widespread environments which suck the life and creativity out of people. Until we better understand people and psychology, and actively apply that new knowledge, we're not going to make much progress in that direction, I'm afraid. The Antimatter Principle sums up in one very simple sentence what we need to do. Attend to folks' needs. It sounds too simple to be useful. But that's the power of the thing. By placing this principle at the heart of our organisations, we could build a world where people matter, where joyful workplaces are the norm, and where little of folks' natural talents and enthusiasms go to waste.

InfoQ: Recently you wrote the blog post core practices for the antimatter principle in which you talk about applying the antimatter principle and asked people to share their practices. Did you receive some? Can people still contribute their practices?

Bob: Yes. I have had a few contributions. And yes, I would love for folks to contribute more. I suspect one reason for the limited response is the lack of such practices, and the general low level of awareness that recognising people's needs is key to successful collaborative knowledge-work. Having applied the Antimatter Principle for the best part of twenty years, I have my own practices too, of course. Practices which I continue to write about on my blog: http://flowchainsensei.wordpress.com

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