The author's thesis can be applied to almost any discipline, but it is from his background as an IT consultant that most of his professional examples are drawn. He considers success in this field pretty broadly and addresses the technical, management, political, personal, and social aspects of the IT profession.
Rather than expound upon the virtues of Yet Another Methodology or a Prescribed Practice, the author sets out to show that the wisdom and experiences of the last few millennia have lead to principles and practices that transcend particular methodologies or approaches and form the basis of success; that introspection and empathy will serve better than adherence to position and retreat behind logical argument; and that, ultimately, we all want similar outcomes — even if it's not obvious on the face of it.
If you have ever been torn between deadlines and burnout, stretched between politics and technology, or simply wondered "How am I going to get through this?" I think that this book definitely has something to offer you.
Firstly: a disclaimer. I worked with Barry Evans for approximately nine months about fifteen years ago in London. We kept in touch, sporadically, after I returned to Australia and, over the years, I followed his career from Software Engineer to Team Leader to Organisational Project Mentor to his own Practice Consultancy business throughout Europe and beyond. What struck me in retrospect was that, in the mid-nineties, Evans was doing Agile — not that it had a name back then, or even that we recognised it as such. He talked philosophy, was passionate about practice and meaning and we delivered (on time and in budget) which was surprising given the nature of the project. This was a pattern that he would come to repeat within many projects and organisations.
When he announced that he was taking time out to commit his experiences to paper, I admit I was keen read his book. It turns out that this is the first volume in a series of four and addresses developing a set of principles to guide working life. The other three (yet to be published) cover how to use these principles; specific examples of their use; and the principles in broader contexts — relationships, society and the world.
The first thing the reader notices about this work is the breadth of the material drawn upon in order to build the author's arguments — ranging from historical, contemporary, technical and personal sources. The second is the copious footnoting and rigorous referencing of other works. This in itself is valuable allowing the reader to delve deeper into particular themes if they wish. The book is supported with additional material at the author's web site
The main body of the book opens with the short chapter "Themes, Directions and Koans" which outlines the broad ideas and concepts of the volume. It's a pretty starkly written chapter — the first few pages in particular are daunting — but soon you realise that the book is written somewhat fractally. Concepts are stated, revisited and linked with others into a whole, adding details as the iterations progress. In fact the book itself is a good example of the author's themes: "Evolution and Interconnectedness" and "Universality and Context" — the other ones being "Reciprocity and Balance" and "Longevity and Inspiration". Here, the themes are introduced, connected and linked with the tools one needs to begin to address them.
"The Most Important Chapter In This Book" follows next and introduces the idea of "Deep Structure and Surface Structure". Most of our activities in professional and personal life involve discerning others' expectations and perspectives and working to accommodating them. This chapter accounts for differences in perspective we have in relation to even commonly held ideas. It explores the conflicts that may arise due to this duopoly and shows how the evolution of ideas and practices give rise to the paradox "The more we know, the less we know". It also lays the foundations of understanding prejudices and the mechanisms of socialisation of ideas. None of these concepts are new, but are drawn together in forehead slapping clarity. This, I think, is what makes this book accessible, the author's ability to describe an easily digestible deep structure from seemingly disparate surface structure concepts.
The third main chapter "The Map" draws the distinction between process and principle and gives guidelines on how to form one's principles for professional and personal life. As the author explains, this is a process of "differentiate[ing] between opinion and observation", and "determine[ing] which rules we can trust and which are wolves in sheep's clothing". Such principles facilitates one's own meta-practice, balancing "empiricism rigour and repeatability" against "inspiration, wonder and motivation", enabling the practitioner to develop the most effective approach to take for various life endeavours.
"The Key" introduces a series of tools or skills that can be brought to bear on the themes of this book. They include Agile Development, Theory of Constraints, Systems Thinking, Lateral Thinking and Neuro-Linguistic Programming, metaphor, refinement and pattern recognition amongst others. The author then shows how they relate to discovering the deep structures of problems and how they can be combined to support principles and practice. I found myself more familiar with some of these than others, however this chapter provided a good introduction to these techniques and their applicability, as well as providing many references to enable further study.
The chapter "Inspiration" concerns the motivation or desire to achieve on a personal level and, in particular, inspiring others. Here, the author rather cheekily turns the title of the volume around from "Working Life" to "A Life That Works" and goes on to explain that to inspire or be inspired you must place work into the context of that which gives one's life meaning. He draws the distinction between inspiration (as a principle) and motivation (as a process), going on to discuss management styles involving counterproductive attempts to motivate and inappropriate introduction of competition. This chapter also covers the introduction of change into an organisation or team — particularly in the sense of changing context, methodology or practice — and mechanisms for avoiding conflict and inspiring others to embrace the change.
The longest chapter in the book is entitled "Balance" and discusses finding the inspired and effective centre or "norm" of your life, your team, your project etc. and staying there in the face of change. It is a rather long and rambling chapter and I think the book would have been better served by breaking it up into more digestible chunks. It is, however, where the previous threads coalesce, the author bringing them together with case studies and lengthy examples. He starts this chapter with the metaphor of life as a high wire balancing act with the processes we employ as the balancing pole. He then discusses the different feedback sensitivities and reactions required to regain the centre of balance as it shifts. The author gives as examples: the tensions between software stability and responsiveness to changing requirements, productivity and fatigue, skill and process, priority and effort, importance and urgency, and complexity and difficulty — all of which may need to be balanced against one another. He then covers in more detail issues surrounding the prioritising of work activities and their impact on stress using a common importance/urgency quadrant model. This is followed by a description of strategies for negotiating this area. The author then touches upon the need to balance the requirement for skills, tools and processes at both a team and at a personal level, noting how to avoid potential conflict between personal career objectives and organisational goals.
The core of this chapter is based on a discussion of fulcrums, levers, balance and counterbalance as a metaphor for understanding where to apply effort in order to bring about change. This metaphor leads to a suggested mechanism for bringing the domain under analysis — whether your life, a project, or an organisation — into balance. This follows on to a case study of the common situation regarding the competing needs of an organisation's commercial, software development and production support groups which the author terms "The Consultant's Conundrum". This part of the chapter concludes with a fairly detailed approach to dealing with the seemingly disparate perceptions, aspirations and needs of these groups and bringing them into accord. It points out the role of management in this exercise and concludes that, like good jazz, the best of people in any discipline is born from an environment of controlled freedom.
The last main chapter "Context" rounds off the foregoing by introducing the concept of hierarchies of focus, the ability to move between the gestalt and the detail, and the pitfalls, challenges and mechanisms for success when doing so. The author entreats us to always know where are in the hierarchy of concerns and points out that many "arguments about the details" are due to fuzzy understanding of the higher layers of the problem at hand. A large portion of this chapter will be familiar to software developers as it uses metaphors drawn from object-oriented programming to describe problem analysis, the interactions between processes, and the relationship between organisational hierarchies and groups. This analysis of organisation design leads into recommendations for those in a position to influence organisational structure. The chapter concludes with a discussion regarding project planning and process refactoring — and the various techniques that may be employed to inform these processes at various levels of a hierarchy of focus. I found this last part of immense value and the most important part of this chapter.
By the end of this volume, it is apparent that the author has much to say and is at times overeager to get it all out — bubbling over with ideas and metaphors. I found this volume somewhat unconventional in it's layout and writing style, but compelling and challenging nonetheless. It is the sort of book that lends itself to taking place on a professional's bookshelf to be read and re-read over time — each reading yielding some nugget or insight overlooked in the past. I am certainly looking forward to the subsequent volumes and would recommend this series to anyone engaged in or with the IT industry."