The art in our work

Challenging the status quo is art
August 31, 2012

This text was first published in OBJEKTspektrum, issue 5/2012, under the title “Die Kunst in der Arbeit, eine Herausforderung des Status quo”. I have enhanced and translated the initial document to publish it here on ulf.codes.

The Agile Manifesto [Beck et al. 2001] represents a force that is behind any concrete agile procedure like XP, Scrum or Kanban. This force, the culture to challenge the status quo, attracts certain people and companies.

People

Work is an important part of human life. Otl Aicher writes basically: For humans, work is what for a spider is the net. As the net can not exist without a spider and the spider can not be without the net, likewise work can not exist without humans. We define our habitat by doing work. [Aicher 1992:28]

We can understand our work as being oppressive, a craft or even art.

Work that does not allow us to find a purpose, where we can not act self-determined or are exposed to monotonous stress, with little or no influence on the outcomes or where we can not identify ourselves with the results, oppresses us. We wear out in our doing and can not have an intrinsic motivation.

In some IT-projects this way of working can be observed: More often than not there is no strong cost-benefit assessment with a conclusive strategic goal which is being understood by all members of the delivery team; for only some areas of responsibility there are many coordinators, coaches, consultants and managers, but for many programming tasks there are only some software developers; the produced code is of bad quality because of heavy time pressure and too few developers with the right skills; software that is being developed is not being used because the way it is build does not help the users doing their work; responsibilities are unclear, power is being exercised when it comes to track down the guilty parties but leadership is not being given; success is not being seeked because all energy is consumed to avoid only failure. This way of working does not safeguard our existence - instead it causes disease. Here is a lot to lose and little to win. If you can not change the situation try to leave.

Projects are being deceived into such situations at first by managers. Managers are responsible for the way the systems works. If they miss to set the right constraints to foster and direct self-organizational forces, no guiding process can be established by the work-force level. The missing leadership creates a vacuum allowing disorder and lack of direction to flow in.

If we see our work under the aspect of good workmenship, our thinking and acting will be guided by concepts of quality and work ethics. An electrician for example will not install a cable diagonally even if asked to do so by his customer. This is simply against his work ethics.

A software development team will establish a system of continuous integration or even delivery. If the environment is not prepared for that, the team will fight for it, because not to do so would hurt workmenship standards.

The software craftsmanship movement [Bradbury et al. 2009] can be seen under that impression - although this movement goes beyond workmenship, it is about art and craft.

By claiming our work as being art, the development opportunities will expand for the individual, the team and the surrounding organization. Now it´s all about purpose, autonomy and mastery. Seth Godin explains what art in work may be:

There used to be two teams in every workplace: management and labor. Now there’s a third team, the linchpins. These people invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order out of chaos. They figure out what to do when there’s no rule book. They delight and challenge their customers and peers. They love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art. [Godin 2010]

By Seth Godins definition an artist is

… someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally. [Godin 2010:83]

Art is not decoration, it is a motor of change. And art will only be made by artists. In this sense the heads behind the agile movement can be seen as artists.

This interpretation of art in work is not only about individual expertise, it is also about cooperation und social capabilities. Expertise and cooperation bring us to an up-movement, while in the opposite incompetence and egoistic driven acting bring us into a down-movement.

In this regard it is helpful that experienced people have an eye for other experienced people [Wohland and Wiemeyer 2007:40], so that they attract each other, which facilitates cooperation in the end.

This positive and demanding expectation on us and our work is a force behind the Agile Manifesto and also the software craftsmanship movement. From that perspective I think it is clear, that Agile is about individuals, their opinions, attitudes, creativity, skills and their willingness to cooperate.

Organization

This perspective does not correspond with the model by that we have been socialised in the industrialised world during the last onehundred years. The school-, university and working worlds functioned by a mainly different pattern: the Taylorism [Wiki].

The centralized planning, disassembly and automation of work brought us to the integration of human work into precise production timing and to an understanding of companies as automatic production machines. Wohland and Wiemeyer explain the concept with their model of the Taylor-Tub.

Figure: The Taylor-Tub [Wohland and Wiemeyer 2007:23]

In the Taylor-Tub the thoughts of the individual are not of importance, because all workflows, procedures and processes are already defined upfront and have to be followed. This makes the system robust but inflexible. We have been educated for this world of working, which brought up disruptive productivity growth and inert mass markets during the last century. Biggest problem to solve for these markets: how to produce as much as possible at the cheapest price.

Todays markets are more and more characterized by their narrowness and/or complexity. This complexity requires a better understanding of customer needs, higher flexibility and often interdisciplinary approaches. Those companies that can create such dynamics, the top performers, set the less capable companies under pressure. Companies that can not create the dynamics will suffer the pressure. Biggest problem to solve for these markets: how to connect to the customer, identify what delivers real value and be able to do it fast.

The momentum is being created by dynamic people, by experienced and skilled workers who responsibly and self-organizing produce results. People who can bear with complexity. For those people values and leadership are of much higher importance than centralized control and management.

A template for congruent acting can be seen in the Agile Manifesto. And the corresponding attitude might be to understand our work as an art.

Perspective

It is not about even more working. Instead I think we need to care about a more suitable style of working for nowadays, about personal progress and development. Those people and companies that understand their work as an art and who explore the field that will be opened through that thinking and acting, are the avant-garde of a new wave. Maybe this wave can be compared to the transformative power that Taylorism unfolded during the last century. The Agile Manifesto and also the software craftsmanship movement are patterns of this new reality. The related value systems can guide the path for the individual, the team and the company.

References

[Aicher 1992] O. Aicher, “analog und digital”, Ernst & Sohn, 1992

[K. Beck et al.] “Agile Manifesto”, 2001, http://agilemanifesto.org

[Bradbury et al. 2009] D. Bradbury et al., “Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship”, 2009, http://manifesto.softwarecraftsmanship.org

[Godin 2010] S. Godin, “Linchpin, Are You Indespensable?”, Penguin Books, 2010

[Schneider 2012] U. Schneider, “Die Kunst in der Arbeit, eine Herausforderung des Status quo”, OBJEKTspektrum, Ausgabe 5, 2012

[Wiki] Wikipedia, “Frederick Winslow Taylor”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Winslow_Taylor

[Wohland and Wiemeyer 2007] G. Wohland, M. Wiemeyer, “Denkwerkzeuge der Höchstleister, Wie dynamikrobuste Unternehmen Marktdruck erzeugen”, Murmann Verlag, 2007