E34: /Collaborative Circles/, part 1: a teaser

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Welcome to Oddly Influenced, a podcast about how people have applied ideas from *outside* software *to* software. Episode 34: /Collaborative Circles/, part 1: a teaser

This series is about Michael P. Farrell’s 2001 book /Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work”. A collaborative circle is, quote:

“a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth working on, and how to think about them. […] For members of the collaborative circle, each person’s work is an expression of the circle’s shared vision filtered through his or her own personality.

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Let me hasten to add that the groups didn’t just dialogue about their common vision. They also talked about – and practiced – the nitty-gritty of concrete techniques. Sure, the French Impressionist painters spent evenings at cafés going on and on about the importance of capturing the ever-changing qualities of light, but they spent their *days* inventing ways to do exactly that and sharing them with each other.

I mention the French Impressionist painters (Monet and that lot) because they are one of the six case studies Farrell bases his book on. The others are:

* A group of the United States’ “first wave” feminists – including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – who tagged themselves the Ultras because they advocated for crazy extreme ideas like letting women vote.

* And Sigmund Freud’s collaboration with Wilhelm Fleiss and Josef Breuer during the development of psychoanalysis.

* And three writers’ groups (the “Inklings” of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others; the “Rye Circle” of H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and others; and the “Fugitives” of Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Alan Tate, and others).

Farrell’s claim is that those circles shared a common trajectory through time, with certain roles, certain events, and certain kinds of collaboration showing up again and again. And I pretty much buy it, because as I was reading I kept being struck by parallels with software:

* “Oh”, I’d say, that fits with what I’ve heard of the early history of Unix.”

* Or I’d hear echos of stories told about early Agile projects.

* Or I’d fight the temptation to draw three columns on a sheet of paper, label them “Fugitive Poet review format”, “Richard P. Gabriel review format for software patterns”, and “The Los Alto Workshop on Software Testing review format”, then start an element-by-element comparison.

* And, most of all, I was reminded of my experience as a core member of the Context-Driven School of Software Testing. So many things in the history I experienced mapped well onto Farrell’s model, up to and including the spats and accusations of betrayal that ended it. “Yes!”, I so often thought. “I was there! I saw that!”

So I had an idea: let me do an episode on how Farrell’s model might apply to software teams. Now, that might not seem great: who wants schooling in a long process that ends in spats and accusations of betrayal? But Farrell’s trajectory splits fairly neatly into two parts.

The first part ends when the core creative work has been done and proved itself in practice. At that point, the shared vision has few but fervent supporters. It’s after that that Farrell’s circles “go public” – they try to leverage the few and fervent into a mass movement with many (but more lukewarm) supporters. The Impressionists staged artistic exhibitions. The Ultras organized conferences and public lectures on women’s rights. The Fugitives published a literary magazine and invaded academia.

It’s because they went public with their worked-out alternative to the status quo that such circles have Wikipedia pages – and Farrell had the interviews, memoirs, and carefully preserved letters to work from.

But it seems there must be other circles that got to the worked-out alternative and just… stopped. They didn’t want to change the world, or even their field: they just wanted to do good work, in a way they liked. So they did, and lived happily ever after, resisting the unpleasantness that comes with going public.

You hear of teams reacting to the backlash against Agile in just that way. They have no desire to spawn the next Extreme Programming, or Scrum, or the Spotify model. They just want to create software they’re proud of, alongside people they enjoy, and have a pleasant life.

My plan was that this episode would aim to help such people: Farrell for teams, if you will. Then the following episode would, for completeness, follow up with what happens when collaborative circles go public.

As I worked, though, I found mismatches between circles and teams, and I had problems accepting some of Farrell’s generalizations. So I’ve changed the plan to three episodes.

This first one will try to spark your interest with two case studies, but then spoil everything by giving reasons why Farrell’s model might be a bad fit for you. I’d hoped to have a third case study – that of the context-driven circle – but its other past members are uninterested in comparing our history to Farrell’s model, never received or replied to my contact, or still think I’m an untrustworthy, scurvy, scheming wretch. Or all three.

After this episode, the next two episodes will be as originally planned.

So let’s start with the case studies.

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It’s 1862. In France, a state-sponsored agency defined what proper painting was. The most acceptable was classical painting (think of a photorealistic picture of a reclining Venus with cherubs flitting about). Less acceptable were paintings of people in moments of ecstasy, heroism, or suffering. Pictures of peasants working in the fields were the least reputable, but OK – barely. Notably missing were landscapes, pictures of water lilies, the English Houses of Parliament, or other scenes without people.

The agency didn’t censor offending art. It didn’t have to. It would simply not include such art in each year’s big exhibition. The public wouldn’t see it, and journalists wouldn’t write about it. The middle class wouldn’t buy it: their friends would give them funny looks if they hung it in their parlor. So the omitted artists wouldn’t sell paintings or get commissions.

Enter Claude Monet (22), Frederic Bazille (21), August Renoir (21), and Alfred Sisley (23). Like many others, they came to Paris to learn their craft and become successful artists.

Except they viscerally didn’t like the accepted styles. After all, how many pictures of Venus with cherubs does one nation need? They felt they had talent, they were ambitious, and doing the same old thing over and over offended them.

They still did need to learn their craft, and Bazille and Renoir met at the studio (that is: tutoring business) of Charles Gleyre. He himself painted in the classical style, but he was more tolerant than most of students with ideas.

Bazille and Renoir hit it off. Later, Bazille got Sisley to enroll at the same studio. Bazille is what Farrell calls “the Gatekeeper”: a sort of match-maker who selects compatible people from a wider population. There were other novices at the studio, but Bazille formed his circle from the ones who “fit”.

These three formed the habit of drinking at a particular bar after each day of instruction and practice.

Monet joined the group last, after his father told him he’d get no more financial support unless he studied with a real teacher. He picked Gleyre because that master was the least oppressive choice, found the other three students congenial, and became something of their leader. Not, I think, the kind of leader who gives orders but rather the kind of charismatic person that other people want to impress. There’s just a certain kind of person who makes other people crave a nod of approval. I’ve been in meetings that contained Kent Beck or Cem Kaner, and you can just *see* the body language and glances that reveal everyone else is checking the charismatic person’s reactions. It’s really striking when you pay attention.

Gleyre, though generally tolerant, was still critical of the paintings the circle produced. By doing that, he allowed the circle’s as-yet-vaguely-focused rejection of traditional style to become focused on rejecting *him*. That’s common enough that Farrell gives that role a name: the Tyrant.

As time passed, the future Impressionists gained more members and began to have more regularized meetings, held on Thursday nights. Although the meeting was in a public space – a café – their two tables were separated from the rest of the café by a glass partition, so it was more of a private meeting. Monet describes the meetings like this:

“Nothing could be more interesting than the talks we had with their perpetual clashes of opinion. Your mind was held in suspense all the time, you spurred the others on to sincere, disinterested inquiry and were spurred on yourself, you laid in a stock of enthusiasm that kept you going for weeks on end until you could give final form to the idea you had in mind. You always went home afterwards better steeled for the fray, with a new sense of purpose and a clearer head.”

In such meetings, the artists egged each other on toward more radical positions. Monet, as the Charismatic Leader, pushed them the hardest in unconventional directions like painting outside instead of in a studio.

The big breakthrough came when Renoir and Monet began to pair-paint:

“In the summer of 1869, Renoir and Monet decided to paint together at a popular watering spot […] west of Paris. […] Renoir and Monet usually painted alongside one another, and indeed it is possible to infer who was standing on the left and who was on the right as they did so. […]

“In their experiments and dialogue, they converged on a method for capturing the play of light on water. They painted rapidly with short, comma-like brushstrokes, and they juxtaposed sharply contrasting, unmixed colors. This technique brought a shimmering life to water that no one had ever achieved before. […] The discoveries they made and the techniques they developed that summer are considered the definitive elements of the Impressionist style. […]

“They arrived at the vision as they worked, alongside one another, commenting on each other’s work, experimenting, making mistakes, deciding to include some mistakes, and eventually discovering the effects they preferred. […]

“Creative innovations emerged not so much from the depths of the unconscious of the men, but from the interaction between them, from the merging of their minds, and from their collaborative search for solutions to the problems that had been defined by the group.”

I imagine the experience was similar to when Kent Beck and Ward Cunningham pair programmed back in the heady early days of the as-yet-unnamed “Extreme Programming.”

The Impressionists’ gains were not just a matter of pair-work, though. They had to be consolidated by bringing them back for the whole circle to discuss, and by prompting other pairings to do further experimentation.

Let’s leave that aside, though, and jump forward to 1914 and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. What became known as the Fugitive Poets evolved out of undergraduate bull sessions. The members were not originally poets, but were studying things like chemical engineering, medicine, and banking. But they liked to talk about philosophy and literature on Saturday nights.

Bull sessions are traditionally open to all, but Donald Davidson – the Gatekeeper – began inviting people to the older Sidney Hirsh’s home. Hirsh at that point became the Charismatic Leader. He served to challenge them with his weird and eclectic ideas, though he was replaced in the leadership role once the Fugitives focused on poetry.

The Fugitives were Southerners dissatisfied with the culture of the South, which they saw as stuck between people sentimental about a mythical “Old South” of dashing yet genteel aristocrats, with happy slaves as decoration, and people who wanted to copy New England and so become “an emerging powerhouse of industry and commerce.”

I haven’t done enough research to say it with confidence, but I have the idea that the future Fugitives were thinking “Hey! Y’all may not have noticed, but the South *lost* the Civil War. Maybe we shouldn’t ignore what that means, going forward.”

So they were looking for an alternative to a dissatisfying status quo, just as the Impressionists wanted an alternative to played-out styles of painting.

I don’t know why the Fugitives came to focus on poetry, but they did. They had differing opinions about modernist poets like Ezra Pound, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and – especially – T.S. Eliot: some liked them, some didn’t, but they all seemed to have thought there was *something* there that might rescue Southern Poetry from both pointless nostalgia and Northern rootlessness.

That meant that, like so many youths, they embraced something that their stodgy elders didn’t, so the Fugitives could turn the Vanderbilt faculty into Tyrants.

Like the early Impressionists, the early Fugitives began to have ritualized meetings. Theirs were more structured than those of the Impressionists, centered around formalized discussions of each others’ draft poems. Here’s a quote from one of the members:

“Every poem was read aloud by the poet himself, while members of the group had before them typed copies of the poem. The reading aloud might be followed by a murmur of compliments, but often enough there was a period of ruminative silence before anyone said a word. Then discussion began, and it was likely to be ruthless in exposure of any technical weakness as to rhyme, meter, imagery, metaphor, and was often minute in analysis of details. Praise for good performance was rarely lacking, […] but even the best poems might exhibit some imperfection in the first draft.”

In addition to this group work, there was also pair work, notably between Alan Tate and Donald Davidson, who exchanged draft poems and, “gradually ratcheted one another into taking greater and greater risks – exposing vulnerable experimental work and responding with more and more honest, detailed, and helpful criticism.”

That mattered.

“Davidson slowly developed his own version of a more modern form, a more subtle style in which he juxtaposed ambiguous images of defeated Southern heroes against images of the wasteland culture of mass consumption that emanated from the North.”

Davidson’s themes are not to my taste – Yeah, his most famous poem doesn’t depict Confederate General Robert E. Lee as dashing, but it still oozes regret at the loss suffered by an oathbreaker who helped kill 2% of the entire US population to preserve a system of chattel slavery brutal even by the standards of historical slave states.

Give me the wasteland culture of the North any time.

But leave that to the side. While Davidson never grew as a person beyond being – at best – what they call “an ardent segregationist,” his pair and group work in the Fugitives undoubtedly grew him into an accomplished and innovative poet.

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So, now for reasons why Farrell’s model might not fit you and your team. These are not in order of importance.

First, I chose my two case studies because they are Farrell’s most complete and linear. The others leave out a lot – mostly in order to focus on pair work – and, let me be frank, frequently leave me puzzled about what happened when.

That’s unfortunate because, of all the circles, the Impressionists and the Fugitives are – forgive me – the most “bro-ish”.

Here’s Farrell on the Fugitives:

“Like many male groups, the exchanges had an undertone of competitive sport. Points were scored through intelligent debate, sarcasm, and humor, but not through destructive attacks on character. Witty repartee and put-downs fell just short of generating anger or hurt. Communication was open, direct, but confined to the ‘great issues’ of the day, rarely veering toward personal concerns.”

And here he is on the Impressionists:

“Part of the fun was pricking the ego of your opponent, but with humor and goodwill so as not to provoke his anger. […] The exchanges were open, loud, and merciless, but generally remained within limits that allowed most members to maintain their dignity and self-esteem.”

That’s good for “most members”. Maybe not so good for the others.

This is relevant because something I initially found puzzling about Farrell’s book is how long he says it takes for people to be willing to risk exposing their half-formed ideas. I think that’s at least partly an effect of combative culture:

“Like the meetings of the Impressionists, the Fugitives’ meetings were characterized by heated exchanges where members challenged one another to clarify their positions and to defend themselves. In this combative atmosphere, it is difficult for members to take great risks, present vulnerable new ideas, or suggest totally new directions for the group to follow”.

A less combative culture – like, I think, the Inklings and the Ultras, or actually probably all of Farrell’s less-well-described examples – might not have had to do such an elaborate dance on the way to establishing trust, but Farrell doesn’t really discuss the “gaining trust” issue in other circles. I hate to say it, but “bro culture” is treated as the default.

My personal experience with the context-driven circle was that it had something of the same argumentative style. Tearing someone’s argument down is showing them that you respect them enough to take them seriously. Refusing to defend your argument ranges from intellectual weakness to a profound sign of disrespect to your counterparty. I was an awkward fit for that style, as I am only irregularly combative. Sometimes I don’t rise to the occasion, sometimes my feelings are easily hurt, and sometimes I need to take a different route to understanding.

Fortunately, the context-driven circle did most of its work over email, and its ritualized in-person meetings were highly structured in a way that, among other things, gave people time to think. That allowed me, not generally good at thinking quickly under pressure, to survive as a circle member. Others who might have contributed did not.

My point is that I suspect a lot of the trajectory Farrell describes as universal is shaped by the more-than-ordinary combativeness of his key case studies. If your team has wimps like me on it, or if you favor the improvisational theatre practice of answering a tentative idea with “yes, and…” rather than “no, because…”, a fair number of the details of Farrell’s model trajectory may be irrelevant to you. I’ll try to account for that in next episode’s discussion.

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It’s probably also relevant that collaborative circles are entirely voluntary. It may be difficult to be accepted into the circle, but it is trivial to drop out – and fairly easy to be expelled. Such is not the case for most teams, where members are frequently assigned and removed under the authority of people *outside* the team. Moreover, the fact that team members are being paid rather limits the rebelliousness that is characteristic of circles. It’s probably not an accident that so much of what came to be called Agile started in teams that were very loosely managed. Either they had such a good track record that no one wanted to meddle with the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, or they were in projects failing badly enough that their bosses didn’t want to be associated with the disaster: “We’re washing our hands of this mess – you figure it out.”

Because they’re voluntary, collaborative circles seem to be homogenous in a way that teams often are not:

“Collaborative circles form among highly ambitious members of a discipline network who share a common set of attitudes and values and who speak the same language. Often the commonalities are a consequence of similarities in their social backgrounds – their common gender, class, race, age, religion, ethnicity or upbringing. Because of these commonalities, when they begin interacting, they find they agree about many issues, and they reinforce one another’s beliefs and values. For the Fugitive Poets, for example, the experience of growing up male in the early twentieth-century South provided a foundation for their discussions. The Ultras’ vision was shaped by their shared experiences of growing up female in the mid-nineteenth-century Northeast, participating in religious revivals as adolescents, reading the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, and internalizing the rhetoric of the abolitionists. Because of their commonalities, members of successful circles share many assumptions about what is important and unimportant, they can laugh at one another’s jokes, and they do not have to justify every opinion or explain every detail of their thinking. In short, they feel almost a familial sense of being at home with one another.”

Awkward. I’ll note, along with Farrell, that “the disciplines in which collaborative circles form are not only becoming more inclusive of women, they are also becoming more diverse ethnically and racially. It will be interesting to examine how gender and ethnic diversity affect the formation and development of circles.”

He ends his discussion with the classic academic “more research is needed”, and I guess I have to do that as well. Most teams are not voluntary, filtered for compatibility by a Gatekeeper. And their members aren’t all Southern white men or Northeastern largely Quaker women: we draw from much wider geographical areas and cultural backgrounds.

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Well, thanks for listening. Next time, other characteristics of circle members, the roles they play, and methods of collaboration.

E34: /Collaborative Circles/, part 1: a teaser
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