In his book On Dialogue, physicist and theorist David Bohm famously describes thought as not an individual act but a collective stream of meaning that is shared within a culture. He suggests we strive for “proprioception” in our thought processes, which he defines as the perception of self-aware movement.
Proprioception is the kind of sixth sense that enables a bike rider, for example, to perform the required slew of nano-corrections that support the body’s forward motion. Bohm proposes a corresponding set of mental processes that enable avoidance of dead-end patterns (chief among them, aggression and suppression), improving the flow of meaning and the success of a culture.
What might this have to do with the Scrum framework for project management? One striking thing at the recent Scrum Gathering in Barcelona (see scrumalliance.org) was an emphasis on the role of Product Owner in many of the sessions. Getting that particular role “right” comes across as a critical lever for many Agile companies.
For those who aren’t familiar, a Product Owner is someone who works closely with a development team representing the needs and interests of the customer. The Product Owner is chiefly responsible for articulating the project’s goals and acceptance criteria, providing feedback and approving finished work at the end of each sprint.
According to the internal logic of Scrum, then, a Product Owner is engaged in a Bohm-like dialogue with the team. The degree of consciousness and subtlety of this dialogue can enable a kind of group proprioception, improving the quality of the team’s creative output.
With the right feedback, corrections can be achieved throughout the development process, making a product more powerful in its construction of a coherent set of meanings. Because these meanings have been agreed-upon by the makers and those for whom a thing is being made, their realization in form is a kind of cultural success, a “win” for the culture.
This was evidently the case for Ericsson, a world leader in providing technology and services to telecommunications companies, as described by Peter Madden in his session Significance of Feedback Loops on the Journey to Agile, part of the “Engineering Wars” program track at Barcelona. It wasn’t until they had made the Product Owner role full-time that his teams had enough customer feedback to be particularly effective in transitioning away from a waterfall approach. For Madden, the urgent need to do so is primarily about velocity.
Because it can achieve creative proprioception by virtue of structured feedback loops, Scrum is capable of bringing thought into form – and into the marketplace – faster than traditional methods of project management. These days, throwing work “over the wall” from one team to the next, as proscribed by the waterfall style, just can’t carry a dialogue forward fast enough.