The Evolutionary Nature of Agility

In all honesty, I regularly get my fill, which, interestingly enough, usually leads to eye rolling, of the technorati’s constant claims that “everything is different now!” and “change is only getting faster!” I’m sure there are other things the technorati claim that annoy others, but those are the two that I feel I hear too often. And my response is always a historical one, that is that they should look to historical documents.

If they, or you, do, then what you discover is that for at least the past one to two hundred years, Americans (particularly Americans it seems to me) have felt that things were changing at an unprecedented rate and that the world was just on the verge, the brink, of tipping into udder chaos and/or madness. I swear, just read any local paper for more than a few issues at any point in time — my personal favorite period is post WW2, a time when the atomic bomb tests, the rise of the cold war, and unrest at home (thanks to soldiers returning home and trying to fit back in) had everyone on the edge of their seats.

With the Russians as a tangible enemy and the atomic bomb as a real weapon of mass destruction, you could almost argue that things really were tipped into madness then and that in the present moment things are pretty damn staid. Come on, social media is the same as the threat of global nuclear annihilation? No, I don’t think so.

But this in no way is meant to undermine the very real economic turmoil going on around the world, and particularly here in the U.S. And that turmoil, when it impacts you, feels like the world itself has moved away from the order once known to something new and distinctly hostile. And, of course, there are always the hawkers of apocalypse, who also happen, luckily for you, to be able to offer you advice on how to get through these wholly different, altogether new tough times.

Things are changing, and changing in ways that I cannot wholly grasp: I just don’t have the time to try to figure it out, and I haven’t yet come across someone whose vision seems akin to the impressions I have. Here’s what we know for sure:

* *Manufacturing is volatile.* Just at the moment that the U.S. seemed to have shipped about every different kind of making overseas, there has been a rise of smaller shops and factories interested in producing high quality goods or goods for very particular markets. Occupying a niche allows them to thread their way through the larger players against whom they cannot compete on price.
* *Resources are limited and uneven.* The petroleum industry has reached peak oil, which means not only fuel supplies but all the other synthetics — I’m thinking especially of plastics — on which we have based modern life will at some point in the near future begin to climb in price and increase in scarcity. But many of our consumer goods also depend upon rare earth metals that form the basis for electronic components. Unfortunately for some, resources of this kind are not spread evenly about the globe, and you may be rich in some resources but not in others.
* *The rich are going to get richer, but not smarter.* This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that the middle class will indeed get squeezed pretty badly, it seems to me, but because the rich also tend to be arrogant and think they know everything, they will self-limit themselves because, well, they aren’t that smart. What the IT revolution has made very clear is that there is wisdom in crowds, but it isn’t wisdom the way we usually imagine it.

This new kind of wisdom is the whole reason for me starting to write. I was prompted by [Sean Park’s review of Dave Gray’s _The Connected Company_][sp]. In his review, Park is taken with something Gray’s story of a young Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky:

> What Palchinsky realized was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think…His method for dealing with this could be summarized as three “Palchinsky Principles”:
>
> * first, seek out new ideas and try new things;
> * second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable;
> * third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along

> Most organizations and most forms of politics have the same difficulty in carrying out the simple process of variation and selection…if we are to accept variation, we must also accept that some of these new approaches will not work well. That is not a tempting proposition for a politician or chief executive to try to sell.

What Gray, and Park in turn, are outlining here is, of course, a version of natural selection, what the Internet often dubs the “fail early and often principle” that is usually attributed either to Google or Amazon or some other prominent company. It definitely is the founding principle behind the whole *agile* programming movement, with which I became familiar when I dabbled with the Ruby programming language more than a few years ago. I had never thought of the agile working principle as being aligned with the crowd sourcing in any particular way but to my mind they are both working with ideas well-established by evolutionary biology. This, I think, substantiates those lines of inquiry that posit that information, whether it be genes or cultural memes, behaves in much the same fashion.

My question to myself is: where to go next with this? Suggestions are welcome.

[sp]: http://www.parkparadigm.com/2012/07/29/the-connected-company/