Project “Social Complexity Science Meets Agility”
The Agile movement in software development and project management represents a shift in focus from “hard” (technological, etc.) to “soft” factors (fast feedback in face-to-face interactions, customer involvement, etc.). In other words, the social dimension is seen as key for the success of a software project.
At the same time, Agile is a practitioner´s movement so that its scientific underpinning is weak. As a result, the social sciences, which specialize in conceptualizing the social dimension and studying its phenomena, are largely ignored. This means that the ideas and (background) assumptions regarding the concept of the “social” and the related phenomena (action, communication, conflict, power, trust, organization, etc.) are often based on simplistic and / or obsolete notions. For example:
– the social (groups, organizations, etc.) as a kind of “container” composed of individuals,
– the social as something “living”,
– the social as communication seen as the transmission of information between minds,
– the social as a kind of “social mind”,
– the social as something to be controlled and intervened in,
– a complex social situation as something to be reduced to the interests and motives of persons (= a personalization strategy that includes causal and fault attributions),
The common denominator of those simplifications used in everyday interactions in general and in the Agile related literature in particular is: the underlying social dynamics are often poorly understood.
In many everyday situations, this isn´t a big problem because those simplifications are good enough to get by. But, as soon as those simplifications fail (e.g. in communication breakdowns, conflicts, etc.), it´s useful to have more advanced (sociological, etc.) tools at your disposal. Otherwise, your strategies for the resolution of more or less complex social problems will be simplistic and, probably, fail, too.
Therefore, the primary motivation of this blog is to bring the social sciences in when discussing Agile (project) management and the subject of “organizational agility”.
For this purpose, I´d like to focus on sociological approaches that conceptualize the “social” as an emergent dimension sui generis and deal with various social complexities. These approaches include:
– The sociological systems theory of Niklas Luhmann et al. (the so-called “Bielefeld school”), which stresses the importance of social complexity, self-reference, the dynamic processing of differences, the co-evolution of consciousness and communication, etc.
– Form theory, as a more abstract version of Luhmann´s systems theory, that is based on a social calculus inspired by George Spencer Brown`s mathematical “Laws of Form” (1969) and developed by the German sociologist Dirk Baecker.
– An organizational and multivalued contexture analysis developed by the German sociologist Werner Vogd & his colleagues and based on Gotthard Günther´s concept of polycontexturality.
Those sociological approaches will be further enhanced by resorting to ancient Chinese strategic thinking elaborated by the French philosopher François Jullien.
For the time being, I’ll ignore the theory of complex adaptive systems (CAS) in this blog because its ontological and epistemological assumptions (individual agents as a starting point, etc.) are too traditional. However, as CAS and the sociological theories mentioned above are all parts of the loosely coupled paradigm of “(social) complexity science”, a more detailed comparison of those different approaches might be interesting .So, I´ll catch up on such a comparison if my time budget allows it.
The overall project of this blog to combine Agile insights with advanced sociological research related to social complexity in general and second order cybernetics in particular will be divided into several subprojects:
Subproject 1: Conceptual basics and tools
I’ll start my blog post series with some short descriptions of the approaches mentioned above. That is:
– What are their (background) assumptions?
– What are their main features and concepts?
– Which tools are useful (for example, observing / deconstructing differences, a focus on rationality gaps such as paradoxa / contradictions and latencies / blind spots, functional analysis, etc.)?
As my target audience are Agile practitioners (software developers, project managers, managers, coaches, etc.), I d0n´t intend to give descriptions that are only suited for academic specialists. It´s rather about popularizing those approaches without simplifying them so much that their potential is lost.
By the way:
The list of approaches previously mentioned is open-ended. So, there is neither one approach to rule them all nor only a limited number of approaches that can be used. Nevertheless, my main focus will be on difference-based approaches (i.e., sociological systems and form theories), which are epistemologically well developed. Other approaches such as a sociological contexture analysis inspired by Gotthard Günther are integrated as needed.
Subproject 2a: Organizational agility observed
In this subproject, I´d like to study the subject of “organizational agility” based on a systems and form theoretical analysis of organizations (Niklas Luhmann, Dirk Baecker, and Stefan Kühl). This means that “organizations” are conceptualised as self-referential communication systems processing decisions.
The peculiarity of that difference-based perspective is the focus on rationality gaps in organizational communications. That is, paradoxa and contradictions, latencies and blind spots, strategies and methods to make alternatives invisible so that an ideological “illusion” of necessity is created.
In this context, “observing” means “studying how an organization uses (guiding) differences in its communication processes to create something as something, i.e., its organizational realities”.
A main goal of a related organizational consulting approach is then to generate new alternatives based on those rationality gaps and inject them into the organizational communication processes. But, this isn´t an easy task because some rationality gaps are essential for the functioning of an organization so that communicative “immune responses” (rejections, etc.) have to be expected.
Moreover, it´ll be interesting to see if an organizational contexture analysis (see above) can be used to make some rationality gaps (paradoxes, etc.) disappear because those gaps may result from the use of a binary (and not a multivalued) “logic”.
Subproject 2b: Holacracy observed
“Holacracy” (see www.holacracy.org) is a new approach to foster organizational agility and leanness by stressing the principle of self-organization instead of the traditional principle of management hierarchy.
In this subproject, I´d like to take the difference- and contexture-based organizational perspectives previously mentioned and study what the possible (dis)advantages of the holacratic approach might be. This includes an analysis of the possible rationality gaps and answers to the question on how to deal with such gaps.
Subproject 3: Difference and systems theoretical Agile (DSA) management
In this third subproject, I`m interested in combining Agile insights regarding management with a systems and form theoretical sociology of management (concept, strategies, and practices) outlined by the German sociologist Dirk Baecker.
Subproject 4: Difference and systems theoretical Agile (DSA) software project management
The main focus of this last subproject will be on a systems and form theoretical analysis of two concrete Agile project management approaches: Scrum and Kanban, including their combination: Scrumban.
As before, I´m interested in two things:
– the (guiding) differences that those approaches use to construct their respective “realities”.
– the rationality gaps, i.e., paradoxes, contradictions, blind spots, latencies, etc.
The interesting question will be: Can we develop new alternatives within or beyond Scrum / Kanban based on those rationality gaps?