Ten I-Statements About Change

Part 1 of 5 in the series Leading Technical Change

Here’s ten I-Statements about change, in the geek trades, and beyond. My hope is that it will give you a richer sense of where I’m coming from in my blogs, talks, videos, and courses.

Before we begin, though these statements are about the geek trades, I am actually far more concerned with change in the world. We can change this. We’re the only thing that possibly can. Stay safe, stay strong, stay angry, stay kind. Black Lives Matter.

A little prelude: I recently launched the first cohort of a new live remote course, “Leading Technical Change”. That first round is full, this isn’t a pitch, but if you want to hear about the next round, there’s a form at the bottom of the page.
Leading Technical Change: Real Change in the Real World

So, a friend of mine, in response, subtweeted it — delicately, not meanly, props to him — expressing some concerns. I share the concerns in question, actually. These I-statements aren’t a direct response, but an indirect one, an effort to make my general attitude visible.

1. I regard “agile” as crap, and I therefore regard “agile transformation” as second-order crap.

I believe a) that an external force can’t really transform anyone to agile, and b) that if it could, that would be bad, because it isn’t worth transforming to.

There were ideas in the movement that were and are precious to me. But agile does not really contain them anymore, except in an occasional lip-service pro forma way. If agile has helped you, that’s great. It does not help most folks who’ve been through an “agile transformation.”

2. I don’t believe it is possible for one person to change another person in any lasting positive way.

People change, or don’t change, for fabulously complicated and interwoven reasons. Even situations that seem like they fit “person X changed person Y” are usually not that.

Note well, please, the two modifiers: “lasting” and “positive”. One can temporarily change someone else. And one can cause a person to suffer horrific negative effects, doing long-lasting or even permanent damage.

3. I believe that teams of people change because the individuals in those teams change.

Creating team or organizational or social change is about enabling and supporting individuals.

There’s no one-size-fits all way to enable and support individuals as they change. There are no secret tricks to kindness and openness and good cheer. Much of what I talk about is more about what sounds good that doesn’t work very often, than it is about what sometimes does work.

4. I “coach” software development: I create or exploit openings through which individuals, including sometimes myself, can occasionally take small steps bringing them closer to who or how they wish they were.

That’s a formal definition, and my domain is the geek trades.

I’ll be undignified and open: I don’t believe in any other definition of “coaching”, and I resent it when others try to put me into one of their boxes for it.

NB, I have believed in other definitions, years back, but I was mistaken, and this one has served me for a decade.

5. I am hired by companies for all sorts of reasons, broadly sorted under the heading of “something’s wrong and you might help us”.

Often enough, those reasons are themselves a presenting symptom and a partial cause of what is wrong.

I can live with that contradiction. As I’ve said many times, I think that honesty is believing everything you say, not saying everything you believe. Folks come to me in good faith, and I offer assistance in good faith, even if they don’t know what they’re asking me for.

6. I am reasonably good at helping such companies, and tho I have one or two peculiar character traits that make that a little easier, the real cause for me being good at it is usually as simple as that I’m the only person in the room who’s thinking, feeling, and acting on it.

When I coach, there’s things I am not worrying about, and I make this clear to the people who hire me. I don’t care about their deadlines or their profit or their shareholders, except in so much as those have impact, usually negative, on the openings from my definition above.

7. I don’t have a method for change any more than I have a method for life.

The various framings I’ve made around change are not a method, they’re a partial fuzzy vague description of a way to see. As much as anything, I’m trying to frame a conversation.

“Take Many More Much Smaller Steps”, “Optimize for the Humans”, and “Make Change Ordinary”, these are my three planks.

They are too abstract — too far from the ground of actual change — to constitute a method.

These are humans, and the devil is always in the details.

8. I think most failures in change occur because of a false confidence in overly-simplistic ideas about how human systems really work, or don’t.

Mechanistic metaphors from the physical world commingle with the Cliff Notes from Philosophy 101 to create . . . nothing good.

Most models of change are the perfectly logical conclusions that sit atop a huge rickety tower of false premises, such as agent externality, uni-directional cause and effect, hierarchical control, the correspondence theory of language, the linearity of error, and so on.

9. I have seen many people hurt themselves and others in efforts to create change, and I am not a person who says “try harder” more than a couple of times at the beginning of a new activity. Instead, my advice is usually “try different”.

And tho it usually means “try lots of different things before we give up”, the truth is, in the context of the geek trades, an outer level of “try different” is “try a different organization”. Never believe that I have or will tell anyone to hurt themselves over this stuff.

10. I believe change will always happen, in every human system, that it is happening right now, in every human system.

We have a word for when human systems stop changing: “death”. The challenge isn’t to create change, it’s to harvest its value.

We can’t prevent change, and we can’t control it in any straightforward way, and we can’t force it. But as it happens, we can see it, we can frame it, and we can dance with it. When we do that, we increase the likelihood that we will gain value from it.

Special Bonus #11: I routinely fail at this challenge.

And to echo your own inner voice, if you’re failing at it right now, it is because I’m weak, stupid, fat, ugly, evil, bad, whatever.

But mostly? It’s because it’s a really hard challenge.

So when I fail, I hold close the famous advice from Max Ehrman in his prose poem, Desiderata, He says this:

“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Doubtless, it is, I try to remind myself. 🙂

So. There’s Ten (+One) I-Statements about Change. I hope it gives you some insight into where I’m coming from on this topic.

Shouts out to my friend Matt, for perturbing the GeePaw system to write down some thoughts. Thanks!

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