We are selling agility when we should nurture it…

We’ve been running around agility for years now. We have been studying Zen like teachings and practices from Japan since mid-twentieth century and split-second pragmatism from the US military with obvious results in software lifecycle management approaches from the late 80s onwards. We often talk about Agile, Scrum, Kanban, Cynefin, XP, Management 3.0, Systems Thinking and other, and some of us are so deep into this agility thing that strike promptly when “traditional” project management is even mentioned.

Recently I read a LinkedIn post by Professor Bruce Waltuck from Kean University and shared by Brian Rivera, and in a quick comment exchange with the Professor I came to realize that we and we alone are responsible for the decay of the human race’s ability in dealing with change and overall agility (and thus failing to create better leaders). In his post the Professor pasted a paragraph from a US Army document on Leader Development stating “Through a mix of education, training, and experience, Army leader development processes produce and sustain agile, adaptive, and innovative leaders who act with boldness and initiative in dynamic, complex situations to execute missions according to doctrine, orders, and training. Furthermore, it also produces leaders that possess the integrity and willingness to act in the absence of orders, when existing orders, doctrine or their own experience no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise.” and I commented “Shouldn’t this be also applied to non-military environments?” to which the Professor agreed explaining that he noticed it 10 years earlier and that what caught his eye was “explicit reference to complex challenges”. And then I further replied that I felt frustrated on how we “format” children to become servants and then expect them to become leaders. You can read the whole thing here.

This got me thinking and I started putting some sentences together just to organize my thoughts on the matter and do some research. I am not an anthropologist, sociologist or nothing in between, nor do I possess a greater intelligence that allows me to retain anything I read so I need to take plenty of notes. Also, I am what one would consider a curious mind without any specialised knowledge in the matter. Having said that, please accept my apologies if my conclusions sound anything remotely ridiculous to you. But nonetheless these were my findings. While researching I came across several articles on lateral thinking and children. How they deal with complex problems. Of course, a child lacks many technical and specific skills, but they do naturally think outside the box. That was the key factor that made humans the predominant species on earth. We really didn’t need to look so far back for answers on agility. It has always been there. We were the ones who took it away. And continue to do so for that matter. Not only through the obvious flaws in our educational system but also by allowing the future of humanity to be more and more self-serving.

We have been evolving as humans. Sadly, being human is turning out to be less and less exciting. From our early days we are told NO to many questions. And instead of explaining why not usually the explanation offered is something like “because I said so” or “because that’s how we do it around here”. So, we’ve grown building invisible fences around ourselves that limit our ability to think outside the box. The same box that we built because we were told existed, even if we couldn’t see it in the beginning. But as time goes by it becomes our reality.

NOTE: Mind you, if you take the last paragraph to literally you’ll find yourself arguing that we in agile/project management area of expertise often say that one of the most important words we need to learn to say is NO. Fair enough, but in that particular scenario saying NO is related with defending ourselves and our teams from overcommitment and overburden and NOT with limiting creativity or agility.

Scientifically speaking, I read somewhere that as a cognitive process, creativity is partially inherited and partially nurtured, therefore, the first-phase of creativity is search-based for discovering a novel relation, while the second-phase of creativity known as justification is inductive and logical. Translating this to layman’s terms, part of creativity is born, and part is cultivated. If we “uncultivated” it, then all we have left is binary thinking. True or false. And we become machines.

Overall, we currently live in a world where we sell creativity as a solution for a problem we have created ourselves. Agile as an umbrella of frameworks, guides, practices and concepts to counteract something our patriarch society based in vertical corporations/countries has been using as the scaffold for humanity. I’ll grant you that some of it is most needed such as in military organisations but as we have seen, the best military branches are those where leaders are created/nurtured to “possess the integrity and willingness to act in the absence of orders, when existing orders, doctrine or their own experience no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise” meaning, yes you must have a strong hierarchy but also must be creative and adapt to change with enough empowerment to act upon that change.

Shouldn’t we foster this from an early age? Shouldn’t creativity, play, systems-thinking, problem solving be a major part of how we nurture our children? Imagine what future generations would achieve in less than 50 years. Humanity faces great challenges: The environment; political, social and religious conflicts; resources dwindling; overeating and health issues; self-resistant bacteria; and so on… How do we expect any of our future leaders to solve any of it if we limit our children’s minds?

Come to think of it, society and technology is evolving in a way in which we are teaching machines how to become creative are more aware (AI) while limiting our children to think like calculators. And then we sell them books and courses on “secrets” and how to be better selves. We thrive on “monks that sell Ferraris”, “third eyes” and self-help, self-awareness, changing habits, “turning ships around” and embracing change, all while we look inside our limbic system for answers and look for our “whys”. A new whole industry was created around this. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have a job if it didn’t happen. But it hurts to look to our children and see them being limited from those early stages in life just to sell them some books and mindsets when they become adults…