Learned Helplessness

Dave Pollard has an interesting post, From Simplistic Thinking to Embracing Complexity.

On attempts at knowledge creation that don’t engage employees and customers…

such systems presume ‘learned helplessness’ of customers and employees: The customer, the citizen, is often viewed as a mere, passive consumer of your organization’s products and so-called wisdom. The employee, likewise, is assumed to be ignorant, stupid and disinterested in the success of the organization beyond his/her own job. Most people don’t take kindly to having their intelligence insulted. And failure to engage customers and employees in co-producing the product is a tragic waste of great opportunity.

Learned helplessness. Yup, that about sums up what it’s like to work for a product owner who refuses to let the team invest in the vision of a product. Complexity and invention don’t lend themselves to command and control.

There are individuals like Dean Kamen with a singular genius for invention. Still he emphasizes the value of collaboration – of sensitivity to others and society. His F.I.R.S.T. foundation celebrates the whole individual engaged with others in a technical challenge and the ethic of Gracious Professionalism.

It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.

Agile software development values collective ownership. However, there is shared code and there is shared risk and shared reward. When a FIRST LEGO League Team wins, I’m sure it’s not a single 14 year old product owner who accepts the prize.

For a development team to contribute beyond the bounds of technical execution, i.e. “his/her own job”, product owners need to approach them

…through conversations, stories, and presenting the ‘problem’ to them so they can help you appreciate it better and then address it. – Dave Pollard

Embracing complexity is about engaging the whole person not just the coder. With the person comes life experience, passion, and imagination. As product owner, use your authority to break through indecision but avoid the desire to tell the team how to solve your problems. Describe what you are trying to accomplish and why it is important. Get the team in touch with the customer and let them help you.

The result will be more than the formulation of a single mind. It will be more what the customer needs and, perhaps, it will be unlike anything else out there.

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About Ken Judy

I am an executive manager, software developer, father and husband trying to do more good than harm. I am an agile practitioner. I say this fully aware I say nothing. Sold as a tool to solve problems, agile is more a set of principles that encourage us to confront problems. Broad adoption of the jargon has not resulted in wide embrace of these principles. I strive to create material and human good by respecting co-workers, telling truth to employers, improving my skills, and caring for the people affected by the software I help build.