...copyright Elena Yatzeck, 2010-2017

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Scientia Potentia Est

It turns out the famous Francis Bacon phrase, "knowledge is power," doesn't actually appear in any Francis Bacon work.  According to our mutual best friend, Wikipedia, "The closest expression in Bacon's works is 'Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.'"

Which just goes to show you that, once again, hearsay gets it a little bit wrong.

Scalable communication is tricky, and not least because people are conservative about letting too many people have access to too many facts.  Witness the current controversies over "internet freedom," spurred by the wikileaks events, or the Egyptian government's recent move to completely shut down the internet in that country.    But bringing this down to a level or two below that of national security, let's talk seriously about the phenomenon of "not having too many people in the room."

We've all heard the phrase.  "No, sorry, we don't want X there--it's going to be too many people in the room."  Does it bother you when you hear that?  It bothers me.  That is a statement which simply can't be taken at face value.  It is a "smell."  How many is too many?  What is really going on here?  Agilists, unfortunately, are as quick as anyone else to seek small rooms that don't have "too many people" in them, when conferring on important issues.  Why is this?
  • Comfort:  Sometimes, it's a matter of comfort for the small group of people who are talking things over.  Retrospectives, for example, are classically held by the "core" agile team, because the team itself needs to determine what things are going well, and what things are not going well, and how to fix them.  The last thing the core team needs is for everyone's line manager to hang around hearing reports of non-optimal behavior.  In some environments, it may be difficult enough even to develop trust across the core team.
  • Fear of spamming:  These days, we are barraged with information, and in particular, we all get a lot of email.  A lot.  So groups may feel better about having a small private meeting and then trusting to "word of mouth" to get the results out, rather than "bothering" others with information.  A colleague of mine just apologized to me for sending out three useful blast email messages yesterday, hardly a matter for shame and regret.  It's a slippery slope from "fear of spam" to "not too many people in the room, and the message never gets out."
  • Conflict avoidance:   Let's face it.  There are some people you just don't want in the room with you, because they are unpleasant and disruptive.  If you're not ready to have a complete "let's look at your future with this company" talk today, or if the person is senior to you and no-one will ever have that talk with the person, then it may be easiest to simply draw the line around the small room, and define "too many" as "the number in the group plus one," where one equals "Dysfunctional But Un-Removable Bob."
  • Familiarity:  Sometimes, we just don't think to include people in meetings, because we're used to always meeting with the same people, and we don't want to disrupt something that is working well.  Fair enough, but one person's "dream team" may be another person's "tenure clique."
  • Wanting to avoid "raw" messaging:  A pattern which may happen is that a small team may want to fine-tune its message before conveying it to others, to avoid giving offense, or to increase the impact of the message.  But then they don't actually send the message.  Is this you?  I think you should think about this!
The bottom line is that no matter what your reason for including or non-including people in the room, and despite the fact that Bacon never actually put it this way, knowledge is still power.  Transparency has to occur inside the room and if the room isn't big enough to include all 10,000 of your company's employees, then communication needs to occur outside the room as well.  Yes, asynchronously!  Even if the message is not well-crafted.