Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University
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Learning to Surf

  • May 2013
  • By Mary Poppendieck (Poppendieck.LLC)
  • A keynote address given at the SATURN 2013 conference, held April 29 - May 3, 2013, in Minneapolis, MN.
  • Publisher: Software Engineering Institute
  • Abstract

    Analysis is a good thing. Being slow and careful is wise. Rewarding people for performance makes perfect sense. Creating a plan and following it is the best way to get things done. And we should strive to be the best at whatever we do. The rational side of our minds knows these statements are true.

    But they aren't the whole truth. Intuition is also a good thing. Being fast produces essential feedback. Purpose works better than incentives for engaging people. Probing a complex environment and adapting to its response is the safest approach to change. And being the best can get in the way of getting even better. The responsive side of our minds feels these things are terribly important.

    We are often of two minds—we switch between two different ways of looking at the world. At home and in our community, for example, we are generous and teach our children to share. We experiment and follow our intuition. On the other hand, at work we favor incentives and analysis and plans and best practices. Why is this?

    The discrepancies between our two minds create waves of tension and ambiguity, and one of our jobs in life is to learn how to surf these waves. Learning to surf might be a challenge for one person or even a small group, but imagine a surfboard with 15 or 50 or 5000 people on it. It's not so easy! So in western companies, tensions between rational and responsive perspectives tend to be decided in favor of the rational perspective—because it is really hard to sell intuition up the organization.

    So, as the late Allen Ward once wrote, instead of learning to surf, conventional organizations try to control the waves. This almost never works.

    About 15 years ago, many companies started out life by surfing, knowing full well that they could never control the waves. Some of these surfers grew very large, eventually threatening many established ways of thinking. In response, established companies have attempted to favor responsiveness over rational approaches in order to become more competitive. Certainly not all companies have been successful in learning to surf—but some amazing examples of success exist.

    This talk will chronicle a few companies that have moved from a rational to a responsive approach. It will attempt to discover common patterns as they learned to surf.


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