Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Facilitating Change by Reaching for the Stars

Tonight I attended a local agile meetup where I was participating in an interesting discussion about self-organizing teams, emergent behaviors and scalability of such things to a larger organization.

At one point during this conversation, one of the other attendees shakes their head and, in summary, asserts that I’m an idealist. All of my claims may be fine in theory but would never actually work in practice, especially in a large enterprise. Another attendee then pipes up to ask where or if I’ve ever seen large-scale self-organization implemented successfully. My answer to this was “no where, but that doesn’t matter”.

It was at this point I felt that we had simply reached a philosophical impasse. It seemed my colleagues didn’t believe my claims were possible and the fact that neither they nor I had ever witnessed such was proof enough. After all, all I had was a vision of possibilities; of how things could or should be. While they on the other hand, had a litany of concrete practical reasons why none of those things would work in their various organizational environments.

Now, this post isn’t about self-organizing teams; not exactly. That was just the topic at hand that made me wonder why many people in the past have considered me an idealist while I tend to consider myself a pragmatist...and then it hit me; I’m both. Just like other hyphenated concepts in agile (such as the generalizing-specialist) I’m a pragmatic-idealist.

My favorite metaphor for this is that pragmatism is the path, while idealism is the compass. Metaphors are great, but let’s break it down:

- How do you use the compass (idealism)?
Easy, you look at the needle and follow a path in that direction, then you stop after a while, check the needle, adjust your direction if necessary, then follow the path in that direction; repeating until you reach your destination.

- How do you follow the path (pragmatism)?
One step at a time (incrementally) making sure you take in your environment and understand your situation so that you make the most appropriate next step.

- What is the destination (idealism)?
In many cases I like to set an ridiculously high, yet imaginably possible goal; one that seems almost unattainable. Why? Because it encourages continuously striving towards something better because if you can imagine something being possible you can often figure out what the nearest thing is stopping you from getting there.

So all in all, I guess I agree I’m an idealist. It’s the ideal situation that motivates me and drives me to do my best work and continue on in the face of adversity. And yeah, I’m a pragmatist. We aren’t going to be ideal overnight, we need to consider the realities of our current situation and pivot to the next best place to be, but oh no, we aren’t done; we’re never done until we hit the ideal, which may never happen, but that’s okay. So in the mean time I better keep learning, adapting, and acting to the best of my abilities, and I encourage you to be a pragmatic-idealist too!


  1. As an attendee of said meeting, I have to say I completely agree with you! If we have nothing higher then ourselves to reach for, what's the point?

    Hear, hear to pragmatic-idealism!

  2. Nice post, Matt. Pragmatic-idealist describes you well, and that's something I will aspire to be. This also sheds new light on many of our conversations, which I've always enjoyed, by the way.

  3. Great post. Like that pragmatic idealism:-)
    Thanks, Matt!