Devilish Questions

Please imagine, if you will, a clock sitting in front of you. The clock is older, a small mantel piece clock with a pendulum and a large geared movement.

There next to the clock is a small daemon. The daemon has an odd power, he can materialize any of the clock’s parts out of thin air by will.

As you watch, the daemon enters the clock, removes one of the gears, materializes an exact replica of the gear and places the replica back in the appropriate location in the clock.

Oddly, as the small daemon goes about his strange endeavors disassembling and replacing each piece of the clock, he is also building a duplicate clock to the left of the first clock, with the now spare parts.

After sometime the daemon sits to observe his handy work. The two of you are looking at two clocks complete.

The daemon looks back at you smiling mischievously “Tell me, which is the new clock, the one to the left or the one to the right?”

On Leaving Shepherdstown

I’ve taken down the Flensted Swallows that flew above my son’s crib at the foot of my bed. Even after the crib was long gone, seeing them framed against the white curtains, the morning sun streaming in, has been a simple pleasure. Now they’ve been carefully packed away to find another window in another place.


I’ve also taken apart the Stokke chairs that both the children ate mashed peas, carrots and birthday cake in, 8 cakes for one, 6 for the other. I’d always hoped they would sit in them for a bit longer, and both children have noticed their absence. This I suppose will be a transition in many ways, for Molly, the children and I.

We took down the robot that watched over us as we ate. John Emmet and I made it one weekend, out of cardboard, bits and pieces. This house has been full of creativity and the walls are filled with evidence of it. Some in the form of framed pictures and drawings, others more… permanent, although the children have had some luck removing many of the nearly infinite stickers.

Those marks on the wall, made this pretty little house a home, maybe not the kind everyone would want to live in, it has never been neat like a museum, where the art is highlighted by the austerity of the walls. In here the children’s world of wooden blocks, pencils, precious rocks and Legos has exploded, and intermingled with a million books on philosophy, photography, management theory and more.

In the way the empty house I found here, became full and alive, now, we are putting things in boxes. When we first arrived, we needed to paint the walls, and soon no doubt the next family will do the same, returning my home back to the abstract house I found here, one that they can fill with their own memories.

There is the other part too, the way in which packing is like unpacking. Taking things out of drawers rarely opened, finding lost treasures and memories, here and there. Each bringing you back to previous houses and lives. Moving in a way becomes a stitching together of the past and the present.

Of course, in the end, it isn’t the objects, but the people around them that makes these subtle sentimental vibrations in the chest. My daughter was so young when she came here, she can’t really remember, and my son, born here, has never lived away from this house. Their friends, our friends, found in parks and schools, through the web of parental friendships and happy accidents, have given them, us, a magical place to grow. How lovely to walk to town, jump in the town run, bury the kitchen utensils in the back yard and bike down the C&O canal. We left NYC with Macaulay, and JEm on the way, to find a backyard with a bit less concrete and a lot less cars. I doubt we could have done much better.


And parties? We’ve had a few. Dinner parties with yogis, scientist, sommeliers and people trying to change the world for the better, Halloween Parties, birthday parties… We’ve toasted guests from Seattle, NH, San Francisco, MA, Pittsburgh, NYC, Bethesda and Australia.

I never could have predicted I would end up in West Virginia, and once here would have never imagined becoming an international speaker, traveling the world to tell people about real people, doing real work, in the unlikeliest of places.

I’d have never been able to predict the next adventure either. I’m excited to explore new ideas, and be challenged by new peers. I’ve always been a restless homebody, unable to stay still, wanting to be home. So, it is off to a new town, to make a new home to come back to. We’ll have a huge park  for a back yard (I won’t have to mow it), and many new friends to meet (that’s Molly’s job). I’ll finally have a perfect explanation for all the books and a new focus for my curiosity. I can’t wait… but first, NH, Boise, Paris, Salem… and the summer reading list.

We’ve eaten our last family dinner here in Shepherdstown, we toasted with Champagne brought back from a trip to Paris before either of the children and sparkling grape juice. We talked about the last 7 years, what could we remember? John Emmet goofed around and Macaulay smiled, it was a lovely meal and a fitting ending to our time here.

I’ll miss you… all of my friends in West Virginia who get a chance to read this, even those I was robbed of the chance to give a proper good bye to. Thank you, each of you, my family’s lives, my life, has been all the richer for having you in it.

On Collecting My Thoughts

I’m interested in the metaphors we use to describe being in uncertainty and I think you should be too. Have you ever noticed how we describe, in the vernacular, our actions when facing uncertainty. I’m exploring these stories because I think, more than we are actively aware, humans engage uncertainty, rather effectively, quite regularly. It is only when we stop and try to think about how we actually grapple with uncertainty that we seem to become paralyzed by an inability to remember… “How did I figure out what to do when I didn’t know what to do?” Often when I ask people to describe the last time they didn’t know what to do, they’ll admit to facing uncertainty, but have a difficult time describing specific experiences of how they decided to take action while facing uncertainty.

So, I collect these clues, in the hopes that I can use them to remind people of what is that uncertainty feels like, and bring them back to a specific moment of uncertainty.

One of the clues I’ve noticed is the phrase “Collect your thoughts.” It took me ages to understand how self-explanatory this phrase is. I always assumed that there was something more to “Collecting your thoughts” than, observing what I was thinking and selecting specific thoughts I found interesting for further consideration.

Think of the last time you heard the phrase, or said it aloud… “I need a moment to collect my thoughts” (Tell me a story about it in the comments!). For me, when I reflect on times I have heard or said “collect my thoughts”, those were times when the world around me was a bit out of control. The phrase echoes a sense of “needing time to think.”

I remember talking to a friend on September 11th, whose father may or may not have been in the towers, we couldn’t know, the phones didn’t work. “I need a moment to collect my thoughts” she said, hands on her head looking down at the ground.

Wiktionary’s definition of the phrase seems to echo these ideas:

To become mentally composed, especially after being distressed, surprised, or disoriented; to become calm or organized in one’s emotional state or thinking, as in preparation for a conversation, speech, decision, etc.

These moments of distress, surprise and disorientation are particularly difficult to dispassionately observe. Humans in these situations seem to become so deeply involved in reacting when disoriented, the fight or flight mind taking over, that they have a hard time being reflective about the experience. This short circuiting of dispassionate observation is unfortunate (unless you are facing a tiger) because we also have a hard time disambiguating life threatening uncertainty… and normal everyday stressful uncertainty.

The problems with this lack of reflection in critical moments are seen in the definition as well. We “collect our thoughts” in preparation for conversation, speech and critically decision-making. Surely we need to be most aware of our critical thinking while making stressful decisions. And yet so often we can’t remember how it is that we made these decisions.

Now that we have noticed, we might find some value in trying to think clearly about how one might collect thoughts, so we are able to more deliberate in future moments of uncertainty.

To begin with, what is collecting? Collecting is a process, an activity, by which we modify a collection. As we collect we change the quality of the collection itself… it may grow, or maybe we have to make space by removing older objects. The act of collecting is the act of changing what we have collected.

Collections can be personally, professionally, or socially important. We also say that abstract sets of similar types are collections, such as Arrays in software engineering.

One way we collect is to decide to preserve a class of things based on a subjective set of qualities. We don’t collect any sea shell, we collect those worth preserving. We add those that we deem worthy of preserving to a collection or set of sea shells, leaving those we decide are not collectible behind. In this way collecting could be seen as a form of applying a set of values towards a set of options in order to select those options worth keeping.

Then there is collecting of collections that have value beyond personal judgements. The collection of things that are considered by a group to be more valuable as “completed” collections. Baseball cards, stamps and butterflies. The completed set seems to talk about the order that could be found in the world. That there are categories and places for each things, a great shared taxonomy.

Collecting can also be thought of as the act of not selecting but simply capturing each possible instance of a certain set. There are for example those who hoard their thoughts. Robert Shields, for instance, left at his death in 2007 a diary of 37.5 million words. He spent four hours each day, collecting his thoughts and observations of his bowel movements, for each five minutes period of his days.


Obsessive collecting can also point in another way… towards the edges of a set, an attempt to find the point at which a concept diffuses into simple noise. Here one might think of Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Wing, with its collection of ray guns, as well as objects and images that share a resemblance to ray guns, in whole or simply in profile. An invitation by the artist to explore the form of a Ray Gun, and what we might think of as form and belonging.


Collecting can also be seen as a kind of clearing the away or gathering together, after a fragmenting, fracturing or scattering of something once whole. Clearing away the shards and scattered pieces of a broken glass after accidentally dropping it on a hard surface.

Related but qualitatively different would be the collecting of pieces to put them back in order. There is no hope for reassembling a broken glass, but there are things we need to collect to simply begin the process of repair. Picking up pieces of a valuable vase that we’ll try to glue back together, or the pieces of a broken heart. This is a collecting with the intent of returning the pieces together.

We also need to understand, what are the thoughts that we are collecting in moments of uncertainty. Observed, they are not vague and unformed, but often more fragmentary and contradictory. The confusion of uncertainty comes less from a fog of impalpable nebulosity, and more in the form of a buzzing swirl of specific thoughts. Observed carefully uncertainty often feels like an overwhelming set of options, what is lacking isn’t the structure of the thoughts or a limited number of options, but a structure for sorting them. Uncertainty is in the end an inability to decide clearly what it is we value and wish to keep and what it is we don’t need to take with us now, and choose to leave to be rediscovered by another day or person.

In this way, collecting our thoughts isn’t just about each thought that is selected. It is co-evolutionary, each thought modifying, amplifying or dampening those we have previously selected, changing not just the thoughts themselves but the quality of the collection in whole.

Collecting our thoughts then maybe about creating a dynamic balance, not a just goal state or a static defensible position. Collecting out thoughts is then a transitional strategy for moving through uncertainty with a sense of centeredness. A way of moving from uncertainty toward clarity and order, even if we find that clarity temporal or transitory.

Here to we can observe that this observing of thoughts to center ourselves is different than the centering of Mindful Meditation. In meditation we observe our thoughts in attempt to release them, to acknowledge our human nature and to simply be. This being, being present and in the moment, it quite different than what we wish to achieve when we collect our thoughts. In collecting our thoughts we are concerned not only with being, but with becoming. We collect our thoughts to move forward and to act.

We collect our thoughts to rebalance and find our way by reaffirming decisions based on new information and to evaluate new ideas and options. We collect our thoughts to consider anew based on a new balance.

I start most of my writing projects because I don’t know about something.

-Gerald M. Weinberg

Take for instance Robert Frank, collecting images for The Americans. When we collect images from an uncertain world, we collect without knowing the final form a collection will take. We don’t enter the world with a check list of images to make, but with the belief that the images we make will come to make sense. Each successful image begins to hint at other images we may need to watch for in the world and so the photographer and the collection of photographs interchange desire and agency.

One way we can use these ideas is to generalize the practice of collecting our thoughts in extreme uncertainty, to less critical forms of trying to make sense of our world. Almost certainly we are broadly confronted with uncertainty as an inherent part of the human condition, even if we have difficulty recognizing it.

As a first step, we could recognize some of the ways in which we experience uncertainty. The feeling of uncertainty is often a feeling of having too many thoughts or options, being unable to decide, or lacking a structure to make a confident decision. In this way many options appear equally valid and yet we feel as though we must choose to eliminate some. Another way in which we experience uncertainty is when something we observe doesn’t fit our categories or models, should we modify our understanding or the idea itself? Finally, we can observe that uncertainty and the embrace of the liberation of “not knowing in advance” is the heart of creative endeavors… we can observe that when we feel creative and in “flow” we are fully engaged in acting in the world.

There are some practices that I have observed for directly engaging in collecting your thoughts… you may find them rewarding.

Take Jerry Weinberg’s lovely idea of collecting our thoughts like we collect field stones. We observe the quality of our ideas, ones that we particularly enjoy and have a powerful emotional reaction to. We pile them together so that in the future as we wish to make stone walls, we simply need to fit together a selection of the field stones we have found. In this way collecting our thoughts in not about a current final ordering, it is a collecting for future ordering. A collecting as sorting… Jerry describes these practices in detail in his book “The Field Stone Method

Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry also suggest collecting thoughts for another purpose. Collecting and externalizing thoughts allows room in our minds to think. Like clearing away space, or removing stones from a field, collecting our thoughts lowers our existential overhead. This process of collecting and externalizing thoughts has been useful to many people for rebalancing their lives and making decisions about how to move forward. Jim and Toni describe their ideas in detail in: Personal Kanban


We’d Like to Collect Your Thoughts…

These thought were inspired by my attempts to think about micro narratives and journaling as a sense making activity. If you would like to learn more feel free to ask me.

If you would like to participate in a sense making research project based in micro narrative journaling, The Lean System Society (and I) would appreciate your contributions to our research project… You can find out more

By contributing you can help us complete some research into the hidden and underlying realities of systems work. Most individuals have a myriad of good and bad stories about working with and inside systems. You can help the LSS conduct this important and unprecedented research by simply sharing those stories.

Please contribute you stories here:

Your stories will be used in sense-making exercises at the LSS’s Reactor 2013 conference. If you contribute stories to the research project you will be able to request a summary report of the results.

Because the sense-making exercises leverage diverse and divergent view points to better understand the nature of system’s work, the quality of the research will be based on 2 quantities; The quantity of unique view points (different individuals) and the quantity of stories contributed.

You can do two things to go above and beyond helping us with this project…

1) Use the sensemaker site as an active journaling system for the next 5 days. Spend 10 minutes at the end of the day collecting your thoughts and reflecting on your experiences here:

If you use a kanban system like I do, I find processing the tickets in my kanban “done” column to be a nice mediative practice. It allows me to clarify what I have done, what I am capable of, and the ways in which I observe myself improving.

2) Please consider sharing this post… or write an email in your own words, to other individuals you think may enjoy the exercise of journalling and may like to contribute to the research. Or you might consider writing about your experience using the system on your blog or twitter and providing a link back to the system.

I’d like to personally thank you for contributing if you choose to do so. I know that each of you have a useful contribution to make, Thank you.

The LSS is dedicated to improving the economic and sociological outcomes of the world’s systems. You can find out more at the LSS website here:

An Illustrated Guide To Unlimited WIP


If you feel like the dog at the end of the series, defeated by the amount of work thrown at you. You are not alone.

Knowledge workers throughout the world are being overwhelmed by demands to do more, more, more…. be hyper-productive! faster!

The worst part is that, due to the intangible nature of knowledge work, many of them don’t even realize how overloaded they are. They know they are far too stressed, but they just can’t get ahead. The only answer it seems is to work harder and longer hours.

There is however an alliance forming… a group of thinkers and experimenters, who believe that working harder isn’t the only answer.

These rebels use concepts from psychology, sociology, Systems Thinking, Theory of Constraints, risk management, options theory, and cognitive complexity to model and study the systems they work in. They believe that by making the systems visible and explicit, the individuals in the system may gain a better understanding of it and have better opportunity to improve it. By continually evolving the systems they work in workers and managers are creating better outcomes for themselves and the businesses they work for.

Join the conversation, join us… at Lean Kanban North America, in Chicago at the end of April.

I can’t promise we’ll help with your dirty socks, but we’ll share what we know about Limiting WIP and increasing flow.



 *I would like to give credit to the person who took these photos… but I don’t know who they are. If you know please tell me!

The Social Mind at Work

An understanding of individual and social psychology can enable leaders of and participants in change initiatives to create appropriate conditions for co-evolving systems, resulting in improved outcomes for all parties. Psychologists have had a framework that tells us an individual’s behavior is a function of their interaction with their environment going back as far as the founder of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, and his equation B=ƒ(P,E).

In recent years, the Lean and Kanban community has explored a variety of topics including cognitive biases, decision theory, defensive reasoning, empathy, double loop learning, cognitive complexity, and tribal behaviors. Many speakers including Steven Parry, Jim Benson, Benjamin Mitchell, David Snowden, David Anderson and Yochai Benkler have focused the community on understanding the messy, confounding and ultimately liberating impact of human cognition on the systems we design and live in. Based on this solid foundation, the Lean Kanban conference decided, for the first year this year, to offer a track focused on Psychology and Sociology.

I am excited to announce The speakers for the LKNA13 Psychology & Sociology Track. This track is aimed at highlighting the above and other topics that can be used to enable continual systemic and organizational product and process improvement.

Speakers in the track will reflect on how the nature of knowledge work highlights the importance of Deming’s call for a “Knowledge of Psychology.”  Talks will include topics from cognitive psychology and social psychology. The speakers will explore how psychology can inform our understanding of group and team dynamics, as well as how we might foster innovation to create more effective and rewarding work systems and business outcomes.

I’ve spent the last 6 months working to find amazing speakers to fill this track. In my humble opinion, you will NOT want to miss these speakers:

Mary PoppendieckMaryPoppendieck laid some of the foundational stones of the Lean Software movement.  By way of example, she wrote:

The biggest cause of failure in software-intensive systems is not technical failure; it’s building the wrong thing.


We need a process that lets us develop the first 20% of a system, get it in production, get feedback, and add features incrementally as time and money permit. We need policies that say: If something has to be compromised— cost, schedule, or scope—the default choice should routinely be scope.

years before The Lean Startup was published. Mary’s talk “The Lean Mindset: The Far Side of Paradox” will explore the paradox presented by the opposing rational and intuitive mindsets and synthesize them into a single perspective, a lean mindset.

Steve Holt Steve-Holt_webis frustratingly well read in Cynefin, John Boyd and Maneuver Conflict Theory. He is also an expert in one of the underlying theories of the Kanban Method, Theory of Constraints. He hold a board position on the Theory of Constraints International Certification Organization.  Steve is an Associate Technical Fellow at Boeing and has deep experience in process improvement. Steve’s presentation “Organizational Evolution: Will all Successful Startups turn into Bureaucracies?” will examine how product development processes and organizational structures evolve, and suggest how to avoid bureaucracy traps while restarting the cycle of innovation.

Andrea KuszewskiAndrea is a research psychologist, science writer and Robopsychologist/ AI psychologist who has investigated the neuro-cognitive factors behind human behavior including topics such as creativity, intelligence, sociopathy, and x-altruism, as well as the science of learning. She is a popular speaker, a prolific writer and a science communication activist. I met Andrea in San Francisco last year and left with a long list of books to read. Her LKNA13 discussion “Creative Disobedience: How, When, and Why” (I love the title) will explore how to best nurture and encourage creative thinking–on both a corporate and individual level.

I will also be speaking on the topic of “Heuristics for Modelling Systems with Kanban.”

That is just one of six tracks on one day of an amazing three day conference.

While I’ve been busy scouring the world for Psychology and Sociology experts, Dr. Klaus Leopold, Dr. Arne Roock, Dr. Robert Charette, Janice Linden-Reed, Larry Maccherone and Lisa Shoop have been doing the same for five other tracks including:

  1. Economics and Risk
  2. Kanban at Scale
  3. Kanban Foundations
  4. Simulation Games and Measurement
  5. The Change Agent


There is also a mainstage with keynotes from Bob Lewis, Douglas Hubbard, Maria McManus and Paul Glen from Leading Geeks (read it). I was lucky enough to travel with Steve Parry during the Lean Kanban European tour, he delivered a series of insightful talks and he’ll be speaking. Todd Little one of the authors of Stand Back and Deliver, Michael Kennedy, Luke Hohmann of The Innovation Games are speakers as well.

I credit Joshua Kerievsky for slipping me “the red pill” years ago and beginning my journey in the understanding of software development. He’ll be there.

Hillel Glazer, the program chair for the 2nd year in a row (brave man) will be there…

My good friends David Anderson and Jim Benson who’ve worked for years to create a community that thrives on diverse ideas, and observable outcomes… well, of course, they’ll be there.

The conference is structured to make sure attendees get optimal use of their time. There are no more than three tracks running at once.  In the past, conference attendees have gotten great value out of the slack time between sessions debating and reflecting on the presentations. The evenings are filled with wide ranging expositions and deliberations at the bar, in the lounge or at dinner.

Come listen to and participate in discussions with professionals who’ve investe themselves in thinking about and experimenting with complexity theory, change management, risk, portfolio level control, collaboration, leadership, and innovation.

Won’t you join us?

On Being Lost

I’ve been thinking recently about being lost. I am interested in how people react to being lost. How their perceptions change.

Being lost is; losing track of where you are, where you want to go or losing track of how to get from one place to another. The first thing you do when you are lost is figure out where you ARE, so you begin to use your senses to “see” where you are.

For me, when I know where I am going, I have a feeling of not perceiving the going there. As if I am on autopilot. “I want coffee” goes my mind, so off my body goes to the Hypno Coffee downtown. I am not aware of the “decisions” I am making to leave the house, lock the door and walk down the street. It is like my mind is engaged elsewhere as my legs take me there of their own volition.

Now occasionally while pondering a bit too deeply about this or that, my autopilot disengages without me noticing and I walk too far down some street or another, and I find myself lost. Which can be a rather nice experience in a way. I feel myself coming down out of logic and thought, into my body to engage my senses and truly experience where I am, becoming embodied and engaging a different sort of intelligence. That first sensation of being lost… Where am I?

Often we don’t bother to truly engage with our surroundings, getting lost re-engages us in place, territory and context.

So, I had this (I think) nice realization that being lost has the side effect of, putting you, embodying yourself, in place.

One of my favorite parts of the Cynefin model is the name, which is a Welsh word meaning “a sense of place.” I quote the definition because, it is, I am told only an approximate and inadequate translation.

I enjoy finding stories or metaphors that invoke the “sense” of a cynefin. David’s How to Organise a Children’s Party metaphor is a great example of this, especially as seen through a manager’s or designer’s eyes. I often wonder though, what is the experience of the child’s party from the child’s or participant’s eyes?

In order to experience one of these “sensorial” metaphors I imagined, I ask people to imagine the last time they returned to high school or a place of significant meaning to them, a childhood home. Then I ask them to reflect, do there seem to be a different “set of rules” or expectations that “belong” to the space. For me these rules feel enforced by the place, even if the people I originally experienced the rules with are no longer there, haunted by expectations you might say. These rules are like what Andy Clark might call social “scaffolding”, all that is left in the relationship between my mind and this place. Finally I ask people, do you feel there is an exact line you crossed getting into the feeling of this place? Or is it more a fuzzy transition?

So, I think that being lost may be another one of these metaphors about the way cynefin feels. The way that being lost brings us into a cynefin, a sense of place. What would it feel like to be lost in each of the domains?

Driving down the road your GPS has led you to a road that no longer exists. The simple turn by turn instructions have failed you. You are going to need to explore a bit to get back on track.

Simple Collapsing into Chaos:
You left your house without a map, why would you need a map when you have your GPS! The GPS has led you down a long winding set of roads into the middle of nowhere, and promptly died. You’ve got a bit of an idea where you are, if you had a map you’d be able to point out where you are going. You don’t have a clue how to get there. People are waiting for you… (This works I think, unless you just “back track”)

Complicated as a non-expert:
You are staring at an extremely detailed technical map of the terrain you find yourself in. You know where you are going because you have marked it before, but the routes are hard to understand through the other markings on the map. You’ve brought a sherpa along with you, but you find discussing the map with him difficult. You are lost because you can’t speak the language of the map, you don’t understand the technical details well enough to plot your route from one point to another.

Complicated as an expert:
I was in Yosemite recently and these two climbers came into the local climbing shop. They had a climbing map, every detailed, but they had come in to ask the local climbing expert about his experience with a particular climb. How long should the rope be, what kind of hardware should they bring.

Experts know they don’t trust map completely, they know there is missing information, that the reality of the terrain can never be written. They rely on experience to guide them from one place to another.

The experience of being lost in complexity is like waking up in a strange place without a map. There are landmarks and moss on the trees, lots of local references, but you don’t immediately know which way to go. Being that you have no obvious destination, there seem to be several equivocally good options.
(There is a key piece missing in this metaphor; the idea that the space could push back, change or co-evolve in reaction to your exploration.)

You’ve awoken a drift at sea. There is nothing but sea as far as the eye can see, leaving you with no local reference, no map, no way to observe progress.

The lost of disorder is the feeling of waking up, while on a long trip from home, not sure where you are. It will resolve into a domain as you begin to observe your surroundings, though which domain is vague and almost unnoticed.

Happy Birthday Alan

Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing at the time of his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society. Photograph was taken at the Elliott & Fry studio on 29 March 1951.

Alan Turing’s bombe, at its peak, decoded 4000 German military messages a day and arguably did more to end WWII than the invention of the nuclear bomb.

The result of Turing’s innovations and ideas contributed enormously to a huge economic wave lasting for more than 5 decades. His concept of a Turing machine not only formalized our concepts of “algorithm” and “computation”, over the years it also revealed the very nature of information itself.

Alan would have been 100 today. He and I share a birthday. He was 42 when he died.

Every time I hear about a child being bullied to death in the news, I think of him and what he achieved in his foreshortened life. What contributions could each of those children have made to this world had they been accepted for who they were?

Thank you Mr. Turing, the world is a better place because of your vast contributions, if only we could learn the lessons of your life as well as your mind, it would be better still.

Please consider donating to Savin Bletchley Park 

Open Letter to Torbjörn Gyllebring & KLRATers

Dear Torbjörn & KLRATers,

The month of June for me is particularly packed with life events, my birthday (this one ends in a zero) and anniversary (I met my wife TEN years ago), as well as an important Library Industry conference (ALA) so, it is with a great deal of regret that I will miss the Kanban Leadership retreat this year.

Thinking back to last year, my experience in Iceland was intense. The conversations started in Reykjavík helped shape my research for this past year. I suspect, having gotten to know many of the people likely to show up this year, you will all have an amazing time, challenging each other and pointing out new areas of concern and gaps in our collective knowledge.

That said, Torbjörn it is with a light heart that I write to explain your very unserious duties as the Keeper of the Weird this weekend at #KLRAT.

Before I get to your duties, I feel compelled to explain the history of Keeping Kanban Weird. Last year my wife and I decided to jump on a plane and spend our anniversary with a bunch of process nerds in the middle of the Atlantic. The first night before the conference we all went out for pizza, it was my first chance to meet many of the people involved in thinking about, learning, teaching and practicing kanban. What a friendly group of challenging minds!

The next morning we kicked off the open space conference, introducing ourselves to each other. Then we split into groups, each gathering around a table. I gravitated towards the front (I like to take pictures) and after explaining that each table needed to come up with 2 ideas to present David walked over to join our group. I looked around and saw that the table was full of people who had written and spoken about kanban for several years. With this crowd and David there too, I didn’t really think any of my topics would have a chance but, I’d been playing with this strange idea in my head… Kanban is a bit Weird… and we should make sure it stays weird. So I wrote it up…

Keep Kanban Weird Historical Artifact

To my surprise, not only did the table choose “Keeping Kanban Weird”, it was also accepted as one of the conference topics, and when the time came, people even showed up to listen to me talk about it!

Always first steps.

                     -Brian Eno

Soo… one might ask what’s so weird about kanban anyway. The quality of weirdness that I was thinking about when I coined the phrase is not freakishness, but more like unusual or odd. Looking at the group gathered I wanted to have a challenging counterpoint to normalization or more specifically to premature standardization. As all ideas grow and become diffused through larger and larger populations they are often diluted. One of the first things removed to make ideas more palatable to larger audiences is a certain feeling of “otherness,” a quality that attracts those who are curious and are willing to put in the work to understand novel and challenging ideas. Keeping Kanban Weird is about balancing the growth of the kanban community with the growth of the individuals in the community, thereby preserving the parts that spur us all to want to understand, why, how and where kanban works.

One of my favorite parts of David Anderson’s “Kanban” is the “Epiphany” story. Walking in the Emperor’s Garden in early April 2005 David finds a kanban being used to control the flow of visitors to the garden. There are many subtleties here, one I find most interesting is that the kanban in the garden was being used to preserve value by LIMITING flow as too many people in the gardens lowered the value of the experience for everyone. There are more subtleties. The garden kanban has no kanban board just a distributed visual control, no factory, no software developers. So, I think that it is not just a good story… I think it is kind of weird. The story I think points towards an interesting insight: if the Kanban Principles are “correct” they will be found in many highly diverse forms, in many disparate environments. Keeping Kanban Weird is partially about hunting down new contexts and forms of Kanban, so we can see where it works and how.

How might we go about structuring our community in a way that preserves the weird while permitting growth? In “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” Alexander describes a “Mosaic of Subcultures” that offers some interesting advice that may help us. First, we should understand the failure states that we need to watch out for. Alexander points out two: heterogeneity and ghettos.

The Heterogeneous City

“The homogeneous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character”

-Christopher Alexander

Heterogeneity in a community, mixes ideas and people together without consideration for their differences. Individuals in these communities have difficulty locating like people who “think the way they do”, eliminating chance for mentorship and personal growth. The signal is lost in the noise. Highly individualistic communities seem rich at first, but over time, difficulties gaining agreement encourage conformity and reduce understandings to least common denominators. Common assumptions and group rules dominate gaining more agency than the individuals themselves. Conversations turn toward control of the rules and messages. Ideas and people who may have flourished given communal support, instead are never seen or heard. The result of undifferentiated heterogeneity isn’t richness it is a degeneration into homogeneity. The resulting collapse of local communities can be seen very clearly in places like Manhattan, which at one point had rich and diverse neighborhoods. Those local neighborhoods cultures weren’t valued by the sweeping gentrification, which traded in community differentiation, for the convenience of a Starbucks and a Gap on every other corner. Homogeneity in our community would appear as a bland one size fits all “answer” to “the problem.” When the kanban community stops exploring and challenging each other, when we all agree that we “know the one right way” to develop software, we won’t be all that weird (and the coffee will be over roasted and not very good).

City of ghettos

“People in the ghetto are usually forced to live there, isolated from the rest of society, unable to evolve their way of life and often intolerant of ways of life different from their own”

-Christopher Alexander

The opposite of homogeneous community is a ghetto, walled in people and ideas. The urge to differentiate in communities and from “others” is strong. It is an urge I find difficult to tame myself on occasion. FEELING RIGHT feels awfully good, and there is no better way to FEEL (not necessarily be) RIGHT than pointing out how wrong someone else is. As a community we need to be able to have our own space, and our own ideas, but we shouldn’t create that space by excluding others based upon their views. We need to hear other communities’ objections and understand that those objections reflect as much on our inability to explain our ideas well, as it does on their (potential) ignorance. Creating a walled community risks starving ourselves of new ideas and, more importantly, risks people not caring enough to challenge our current ideas. It is through such challenges that we will find the next bit of “ignorance” that will drive our curiosity.

Mosaic of subcultures

“The metropolis must contain a large number of different subcultures, each one strongly articulated, with its own values sharply delineated, and sharply distinguished from the others. But though these subcultures must be sharp and distinct and separate, they must not be closed; they must be readily accessible to one another, so that a person can move easily from one to another, and can settle in the one which suits him best.”

-Christopher Alexander

So, we need to: a) create subcultures that support individuals and ideas, b) avoid “one size fits all” homogeneity, c) ensure we don’t fracture into walled in groups and d) avoid isolating ourselves from the larger agile/lean/software development community (phew… no problem!). Alexander’s concept for this is a mosaic of subcultures, living cities that are structured to give subcultures space to grow, individuals the freedom to move, and structure enough for individuals to see and understand the differences between cultures. We need to be able to say “we are different from X” without saying “if you think X like things, you can’t come to our club house.” This, of course, is not easy to do as a community. Recently I’ve been thinking it might require a community full of Benjamin Mitchell clones, constantly balancing advocacy and inquiry…

A mosaic of subcultures also requires us to identify, differentiate and support sub communities inside of the kanban community itself; local Limited WIP Societies, Kidzbans, Personal Kanban, Teacher’s Kanbans, The Kanban Method etc… as a community we need to understand how weird (and cool) it is that teachers are using kanbans to help children in kindergarten, couples and families are using Personal Kanbans to manage their households, and children are using kanbans to take control of their school lives. How weird that kanbans work in all these places, what does this say about our Principles?

Complex Adaptive Systems use simple rules and seed conditions to stimulate emergent behavior. The simple rules are embedded in the 5 Core Properties and the seed conditions are represented in the first principles of starting with the current process, gaining agreement to pursue incremental improvement and respecting current work practices, roles, responsibilities and job titles. What will happen next is emergent change. Beyond that we cannot predict. The system must be monitored and adapted. The simple rules being used such as WIP limits and workflow visualization must be tweaked and changed to steer the emergent behavior to produce a desirable outcome.


What dangers are there in letting kanban just be “normal?” Simple: believing we know what is right, being too lazy to continue to challenge ourselves, choosing to follow vs. exploring as a group. When we coalesce into a standard kanban, we risk trying to make our business processes look alike, instead of using kanban to allow us to evolve systems unique to our local environments and needs. Keeping Kanban Weird then is a asymptotic goal, an active process of searching and challenging our ideas and principles, individually and as a community.

A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

-Karl Popper

I know we are now keeping kanban weird because we are such a diverse set people exploring so many different ideas.
I think these are but a few examples of many:

  •  A) Mike Burrow’s Portfolio Kanban
  •  B) Benjamin’s questions about what we mean by Leadership.
  •  C) Don Reinertsen’s tension between Centralization and Decentralization.
  •  D) Hipster Kanban


Each of these examples point out our ignorance… they and ideas like them are our GREATEST hope for new knowledge. We must keep striving to understand where we are wrong, and what we don’t understand.

OK. So now, Torbjörn, I am so happy to call you and so many others who are gathering at KLRAT my friends and colleagues. Here are your very unserious Keeper of the Weird duties:

  •  A) Stand up and be heard
  •  B) Make sure that other people with weird, different and challenging ideas are heard as well


If my experience last year is any indication, you’ll have a lot of help being weird. Your questions and provocations will be rewarded with well-considered responses and continued exploration long after KLRAT is over… oh, and give everyone a hug for me!



The Keep Kanban Weird Community Challenge:

  •  1. David’s Principles are theses… the practices/emergent behaviors are Validated Learnings that have been proven to work in certain contexts.
  •  2. Go forth… find contexts where the experiments FAIL… find the edges… then find experiments in that context that re-affirms the Principles
  •  3. Also… define NEW experiments… report on success AND failure (in context)


Gaping Void "Weird"

“Weird” Gaping Void

Failing Well

My session “Failing Well” has been accepted for SF Agile 2012!

After attending 3-4 Lean Startup Machine events and working with internal teams at TLC to understand and apply the Customer Development framework, I’ve begun to notice a pattern…

There is a trap hidden inside CustDev. If entrepreneurs want to be successful, they have to be passionate about their ideas. They need to understand more about their customers than anyone else. I’ve observed that some entrepreneurs’ passion for their idea and their belief that they already DO know everything about their customers can prevent them from actually LEARNING what they need to know in order to create as successful business. The same passion and positive psychology required to succeed in the face of uncertainty is hindering them from learning fast enough to survive.

How can we take our passion, our vision, a couple “wild ass guesses”, and produce meaningful, validated learning?

Stand back… we are going to try science.

The question of how to learn as an organization and how to DEMONSTRATE learning has been explored by philosophers of science and by business theorists for years. What can the Lean Startup community learn about creating scientifically valid experiments that create actionable knowledge?

My “Failing Well” SF Agile session will explore the theoretical relationships between scientific hypotheses and scientific experiments. We will explore the theory behind using effective questions to invalidate assumptions and following through with the learning process after an error in the hypothesis is detected. We’ll learn how to detect hypothesis and questions that can’t be falsified and therefore only lead to vanity validation not learning.

We’ll learn how to fail well and fail faster by keeping our passion focused on the vision and our dispassionate logic focused on our assumptions.

Join Me at SF Agile June 4-6

If hearing me rant for an hour about the dangers of Cargo Cult Science isn’t tempting enough:

Steve Blank, serial entrepreneur, U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University, Columbia University professor (I’m exhausted just thinking about that much teaching), and  author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany & The Startup Owner’s Manual is Keynoting Day 1. I really enjoyed Steve’s talk at SXSW (and he signed a copy of his book for me too).

Joshua Kerievsky, author of Refactoring to Patterns and Industrial Logic founder is the Day 3 Keynote. Josh is not shy about his ideas and is one of those guys that really opens up your mind and gives you new perspectives, I’m really looking forward to his keynote.

There are only 150 tickets available for for this very interesting conference. I hope to see you in San Francisco!

A Cynefin Delegation Decision Framework

I’ve had people ask me, how do I make the Cynefin Framework useful? How do I apply it? I am going to walk through one way I use the framework, I’m not going to spend much time explaining technical terms here. 

To be clear this is a personal evolving model, it may or may not work for other people in other companies.

As a CTO I am required to manage a volume of problems presented to me.  As an executive my time is often too fragmented by non-negotiable commitments. I like to personally lead the efforts to resolve problems, however often times I am unable to . When this occurs I need to be able to delegate the resolution of the problem effectively. This post will show my framework for delegating work. 

Order or Un-Order

Let me start by the “triage” level of problem solving. First things first, Ordered or UnOrdered? 

Order and Un-Order look to the future in different ways. Order views the world in a traditional mechanistic, cause and effect way, making plans works. Un-Order on the other hand assumes that the future is unpredictable, cause and effect doesn’t hold, and previously observed patterns may not hold. Determining order vs un-order can quickly give me a sense of the potential responses.



  • Defined outcome. 
  • Inspection reveals quality of work.
  • Exploitation 


  • Complete an Invoice
  • Create HTML for an approved Design
  • Determine why a server isn’t running correctly
  • Load Test a system
  • Implement a intricate financial algorithm



  • Definable desirable traits / Multiple possible good results
  • Novel domains or concepts
  • Inspection reveals “fitness” for use.
  • Exploration


  • Create a new product
  • Find a new market
  • Create a valuable social presence
  • Train employees

If I have no more time to investigate the problem further, I’ll treat anything that falls in the Ordered side as Complicated and anything that falls in the un-ordered side as Chaotic.

Delegating and Managing the Problem



  • I know the Answer
  • Most people should be able to know the answer 
  • I can inspect and determine the quality of the work at any point. 


  • Delegate resolution to individual or team with appropriate knowledge of process
  • Investigate why Simple problem surfaced to Executive level
  • Determine if enough individuals are trained in appropriate solution



  • I know someone has a solution
  • I may not personally understand how to complete the detailed solution
  • I can inspect the results of the work and validate that it meets my needs
  • I may not be able to inspect the intermediate results to validate fitness


  • Assemble group of Experts with previous experience solving simular issues.
  • Define clear unambiguous resolution state
  • Initiate Discussion about possible solutions to resolve problem
  • Focus experts on resolution state not details
  • Assign an expert to own “goodest”/satisficing suggested solution
  • Frequent follow up with expert until problem is resolved



  • I know a group of people who would be interested in this problem
  • I have multiple possible good results in mind
  • I can’t define how I would validate the results ahead of time


  • Work with a group of teams to describe problem
  • Attempt to inspire a team to self engage the problem
  • Delegate to team that creates the most coherent explanation of forward movement
  • Frequent follow up to determine response remains coherent
  • Ensure appropriate access to new information and resources
  • Work with team to begin to explain novel solution to internal resources


  • I know individuals who would be interested in this problem
  • I’m unsure how to describe the problem or the solution clearly

  • Assemble a heterogeneous group of individuals with divergent skill-sets, view points and responsibilities
  • Present problem
  • Work to create a network of individuals with a shared vocabulary to minimally describe problem
  • Define multiple possible experiments to “find our way”
  • Delegate experiments to teams (ideally not from this group of individuals)
  • Periodically reform network to evaluate results and new suggestions (ritual dissent)
This assumes a chaotic problem that doesn’t require IMMEDIATE response. Emergencies should be immediately delegated or handled personally by attempting to find the “closest best practice” to temporarily stabilize the problem.


You may be thinking, what about the Disordered domain. My disordered heuristic is that I don’t know anyone who would know anything about the problem and I need to gather more information.

The first thing I do when I find myself unable to figure out which domain a problem is in is to seek peer advice. Peers include the other executives and personal contacts that can potentially add enough information to the problem to clarify it for me. 

If the problem remains disordered I treat it as chaotic, with an expectation that it will resolve itself into one of the domains quickly. The important difference I think is a heightened awareness of the likelihood of a rapid potentially disruptive transition.