On Tools and Concepts and Practical Capabilities
Make or Buy… or Pretend and Drop Behind
When you want to acquire a new skill or learn something new, you turn to any of several sources, from the internet (Google, YouTube, blogs, etc.) to books to training courses or even academic programs. It all depends on how much you need to learn, how deep you want to go, and what you want to do with it. For the interest of this article, I will limit to wanting to acquire enough knowledge for practical application at work. Let us call this capability development, whereby you want to develop yourself or your team, often through training, to be capable of usefully applying the skill, as opposed to outsourcing it to a consultancy or hiring new headcount who already acquired that skill elsewhere and is ready to apply it for your benefit.
At that point, you are faced with the variation in styles and approaches to training. Over the years I have been coming across this recurring theme: pitting tool-focused and methodology-focused training against an approach based on concepts alone as two mutually exclusive approaches, in the name of being principle-centered and of advocating critical thinking, and to thwart the threat of limiting minds to prescriptive approaches that stifle imagination and creativity and make the novice practitioner a prisoner to the method rather than an astute applier of it.
This theme has underpinning drivers: For some the quest for agility makes them view methodology as synonymous to rigidity in principle. For others, it is a belief that methods are technicalities beneath the leadership requisite in their position, whereby they see using tools and respecting standards or methodologies as something to be delegated to low-ranking (and often under-paid) subordinates or outsourced to the handyman. A third driver for some is their deep suspicion that following a method is inherently counter-creative and that any hint of discipline or standard is poisonous to innovation. Often you see a combination of two or all these drivers entrenched in the frame of reference of people in decision-making positions. And the frame of reference of the person in authority is invariably parroted by the troops, regardless if the authority in question is old-fashioned raw power or if the power is garnished by politically correct leadership.
This came across in multiple examples. To name few, of various types, look at this book, The Blockchain Revolution, by Tapscott & Tapscott: the “revolution” in question being technological in origin, the book does not explain but too little of the underlying technology, leaving the avid coder disinterested. The sentiment is best captured in this recent comment by Andrew Mathews, a project management professional who commented on an hour long webinar on Disciplined Agile by the Project Management Institute with these words of criticism: "I am interested in learning what specific enablers and tools are available within the Disciplined Agile toolkit, now. This is a good presentation for giving you an overview of what DA is about. However, I didn't take away anything that I can use immediately." You also see this phenomenon in the avalanche of thought leadership literature in the form of white papers – and lately in the form of webinars and their slide decks – bubbling up out of management consultancy houses: invariably studded with fancy charts or rendered in pure info-graphical format but rarely walking you through the technique as to how they got to their conclusions, since doing so is only useful by means of validating their product to the odd skeptic purchasing executive.