Perception isn't everything


This post carries on from “Agilists: Metrics aren’t always harmful”.

It seems popular in the agile world to privilege personal experiences, feelings and narrative over most other forms of knowledge-sharing. These things form the only widely accepted medium for expressing knowledge. In some ways that’s good. It’s about time we started actually listening to what people have to say instead of rushing to implement Taylorist production lines, finding it isn’t working and then just doing it harder.

In search of objectivity

Taylor’s brand of “scientific” management isn’t a problem because it tries or claims to be scientific. It’s a problem because, as implemented today, it ignores a great deal of science: the sciences of individual people (psychology) and groups (sociology). Ignoring the people in almost any endeavour (certainly any creative endeavour) is–in systems thinking terms–ignoring most of the system; most of the forces at work. This makes classical Taylorism suitable only for dealing with machines. Trying to turn people into machines just to fit the model isn’t really a practical response.

In many ways, agilists are reacting to the Taylorism that came before and that the consultants among us still see in one organization after another. Perhaps we’re over-reacting, though.

Perception isn’t everything

This may come as a surprise if you know about my involvement with the Agile Narratives project but I don’t accept the privilege of experience, and find it limiting and sometimes annoying that many agilists dismiss too readily other forms of learning and knowing (e.g. measuring, performing experiments, developing theories). Actually, if you look below the surface of Agile Narratives you may perceive that what we are trying to do is collect so many opinions, thoughts and stories that we are able to study them en masse and thus study the “big picture” in sociological and ethnographic terms. Data, in other words.

We know from cognitive psychology that many aspects of our perception are quite heavily biased, and that self-perception is no exception. This applies to the individual and can be seen to play out in groups too. So, while self-description is important, especially in understanding the emotions that give energy to our work, it’s also important to seek other forms of knowledge that are perhaps more objective.

So–for example–I don’t agree that metrics are inherently harmful but I do believe it has been proven (to my satisfaction) they can be harmful.