Monthly Archives: March 2012


I met my first User Experience designer in the late nineties. My boss hired a guy with a PhD in the subject. I asked him “What is the most important thing in interface design?”. His answer “Forgiveness”. He explained that Forgiveness was a UX concept that allowed the user to gracefully recover from failure. Without me knowing it, he was one of my earliest mentors in the field of real options.

I now consider Forgiveness to be an indication of a high quality system. When your interaction with the system fails, does it do so gracefully, or does it require you to jump through a number of painful hoops until you get back to where you were originally? Of course, the only way to see how a system handles failure is to experience failure. Until you experience failure, you do not know whether the interface will perform as described. Many systems claim to handle failure gracefully but not all system do. If you really want a deep understandinf of a system, you need to see how it fails.

When I think of systems, I think of People and Relationships and Groups and Organisations and Communites and Societies, oh and Computer Systems. For me, the most interesting systems are those that contain people ( Complex Adaptive Systems ).

Sometimes, failure in one of these systems means expulsion or a loss of status. These systems discourage people from experimenting, or playing to close to the edge of chaos. By doing so, these systems discourage deep learning at the edge. They discourage people from seeking out and challenging the axiom ( or beliefs ) of the system. The Catholic Church’s original treatment of Gallileo is a classic example of this. Eventually the Church forgave Gallileo but it might have been five hundred years to late for him to care.

Just over two weeks ago I attended the CALMalpha event. This event hoped to bring together Cynefin, Agile and Lean communities to explore whether there were any ways that they could help each other learn. For me it was a bust. I did not really learn anything* as I was already familiar with most of the material. I had fun and I enjoyed meeting old friends and new. Meeting new friends and old justifies the attendance. Although I did not learn much I am grateful to the faculty for making the event happen. In particular Joseph Pelrine who prepared a lot of new material to describe his journey with Cynfein.

Several tweetable soundbites (you can check them on twitter I think ) spring to mind from the event about the Cynefin version of social complexity…

  • Seek out the cynics as they really care. The rest are just corporate survivors.
  • Experiment in a “safe to fail” environment.
  • The only way to understand a complex environment is to act within it.
  • Ritual Dissent uses ritual to protect people from negative feedback.
  • Complex situations are understood in retrospect.

As I journeyed home I compared Ritual Dissent to Feature Injection’s “Break the Model”. One advantage of Ritual Dissent is that it provides a mechnism for those with negative intent to feedback on ideas whereas otherwise they may not. I had not realised how important the ritual was to the process.

A significant proportion of the activity in the Agile and Lean Communities takes place on line in e:mail groups, linkedin groups, blogs, Skype and twitter. Conferences are an opportunity to re-energise and build new collaborations. Conferences are not the conversation, they are a high bandwidth blip in the conversation.

The Cynefin community seems to be much more close knit and more based on face to face contact with the central leadership. Joseph’s social network analysis seemed to indicate as much. This is possibly because most of the intereaction is through courses to date rather than through conferences and meetups.

Here are my retrospective thoughts.

Prompted by Willem’s blog, I wrote up my experiences of the CALMalpha event. I did it in the style of Ritual Dissent. In effect, I acted within the system to understand it.

I failed. And I apologised. I failed to apply Ritual Dissent correctly. Did I do it intentially? No. Did I pay attention properly when it was explained? No, I was hungover and too busy avoiding having to take my turn.

I was the cynic. I was the one to be sought out because I cared. If I did not care, it would have been much easier to keep my comments private.

There are a number of questions in my mind.

  • Did I fail in a safe environment?
  • Does the Cynefin community really value cynics?

and of course…

  • Does the Cynefin community exhibit forgiveness?

Last week I went to #ScanAgile where Dave Snowden and Jospeh Pelrine were also speakers. I was more than a little uncertain how  things would play out as my failure had been pretty spectacular. I had a wonderful chat with Joseph Perine about the whole episode at breakfast. I was then fortunate enough to have a walk around Helsinki with Dave Snowden, Mika Latokartano (who acted as our guide) and Olaf Lewitz. Dave treat Mika and I to a wonderful luinch before Mika drove Dave and I to the airport.

Does the Cynefin community exhibit forgiveness? That’ll be a bug yes.

I learned a lot since the Cynefin event. I look forward to helping the CALMbeta event (from a distance as I limit my travel to the USA).

* not quite true. I did learn a lot from Jabe Bloom about photography. His ideas have already started to affect the way I take pictures.

Feature Injection, The Meme Lifecycle and Serendipity

For me, Serendipity is a beautiful happenstance. A series of events that lead to a beautiful and astounding coincidence. Yesterday I stood in the Carl Larsson exhibition in Helsinki and shed a tear at the beauty of what I beheld.

“Break the Model” in Feature Injection is a process for learning. It is effectively David A. Kolb’s experential learning circle. “Break the Model” has four steps. First, spot an example. Second, reflect on whether the example is relevant and/or if it is actually a new example. Third, create a test by detailing out an example (and store the example). Fourth, create a “model” which is used to help you identify other examples (step one) that will break your model. On Thursday Olaf Lewitz helped me present on Feature Injection at ScanAgile. Olaf had realised that we are not creating a model which is a simplification of reality. Instead we are creating an “Olaf”** which is a summary of examples.

As well as using an “Olaf” to spot new examples, it can also be used to spot more examples of the same kind. A few years ago I created just such an “Olaf”. Julian Everett’s Meme Lifecycle helped me understand certain forces at work in the creative world. The example I gave in the comic strip is “Flowers on Windows”, a meme that existed in the work of Charles Rennie Mactintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright. In actual fact, the meme should have been called “Flowers on Light”. Yesterday I saw the meme in the fabrics designed by Carl Larsson’s wife Karin Larsson. I immediately saw the similarity with the works of Charles Rennie Mactintosh and Margaret Macdonald (Mackintosh’s wife).

Why is the meme significant?

Agile is based on the patterns group which evolved from the work of Christopher Alexander. At Agile2009, Kent MacDonald and I visited the home of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park. It was like stepping into Christopher Alexander’s Pattern’s Book. The similarities to Mackintosh’s work were obvious, especially the “Flower on Windows” meme. If Alexander was Agile’s granfather, Wright was it’s great grandfather. But where did Wright get his inspiration? I now had a meme I could use to trace the influences.

If I could spot it, I might find a another clue to the orgins of Agile. Yesterday I spotted the meme in the textiles of Carl Larsson’s wife Karin. A massive smile appeared on my face. I walked around the corner of the exhibition and was stunned by what I saw? A board covered in post it notes. Now that’s what I call Serendipity.

In the next room of the exhibition, the organisers had blown up Carl Larsson’s pictures to create a massive Wendy House maze where children were dressing up and creating pictures.

“Flowers in Light” is a meme that responded to the inhumanity of the industrial revolution. It was a way to bring nature (flowers) and light into the cities. The parallel’s to agile are obvious. Carl Larsson is a new example. I now need to reflect and research to discover whether he was an influence on Wright and Mackintosh or whether he was simply responding to the “Flowers in Light” meme. Was he the great great grandfather of Agile or just an earlier incarnation?

** Known as an Olaf until we can find a better name.