E39: Roles in collaborative circles, part 1

Download MP3

Welcome to Oddly Influenced, a podcast about how people have applied ideas from *outside* software *to* software. Episode 39: Roles in collaborative circles, part 1

Oh, I heard your long drawn-out sigh when you heard the “part 1”. I understand. I sympathize. I’d promised only one more episode on collaborative circles. However, while writing this script, I found myself referring to two separate books that seem to me helpful in explaining the “why” of collaborative circles, plus are useful and interesting in their own right. But they take time to explain, a combined episode would be too long, and there is a natural “seam” at which to split the single planned episode. So I did.

With that behind us, one of the more interesting things about Michael P. Farrell’s book /Collaborative Circles/ is his description of the various roles people take on. Here they are:

Gatekeeper, Charismatic Leader, Cork, Lightning Rod (in two varieties), Tyrant, Scapegoat, Peacemaker, Conservative and Radical Boundary Markers, Center Coalition, the Collaborative Pairs, and an Executive Manager. I’m going to leave off the Executive Manager because that applies only after the circle “goes public” – that is, tries to dislodge the status quo and get popular approval. This series isn’t going to cover that event and its aftermath.

Farrell’s task was to look at all the behaviors of all the people in his collaborative circles and draw generalizations. For example, he saw that Susan B. Anthony of the feminist Ultras, Gustave Caillebotte of the Impressionists, and Allen Tate of the Fugitive Poets were aggressive in similar ways at important points in their circles’ lives, so he dubbed them “Lightning Rods”.

Farrell’s purpose was *primarily* descriptive. He writes most about what roles like Lightning Rod *do* – how the people filling those roles act. But I want more. If the roles recur in successful circles – and are absent or defective in unsuccessful ones – it’s fair to treat them as problem-solving tools. I want to know what problems they help solve and how they do it. Farrell isn’t entirely silent on that, but I wish he’d said more.

And if I’m going to make you listen to all these episodes about collaborative circles, I ought to give you something that feels more like a toolbox of solutions than a pile of descriptions. That’s going to involve some amount of speculation, only weakly grounded in the facts and interpretations that Farrell provides. You have been warned.

≤ music ≥

For this episode and the next, I’m going to try something like what the architect Christopher Alexander did in his book /A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction/. Patterns are, as they say, “reusable solutions to common design problems”. Equally appropriate would be the phrase “*customizable* solutions.” Alexander did something like what Farrell did: he closely observed a number of examples, extracted common features, and gave them names. Farrell has names like Conservative Boundary Marker. Alexander has names like Stair Seat and Window Place.

Alexander goes a step beyond Farrell in that he tried to systematically work out what problems his patterns were solving and why they work. He does that using what he calls “forces”. I’ll explain that idea in a moment.

First, though, as a digression: I worry you have the negative attitude to *software* design patterns that a lot of people have, and so you just wrote off the rest of the episode. Don’t. Not just yet.

I believe software patterns are an example of how some people applied ideas from *outside* software *to* software – and, unfortunately, failed. That was not through bad motives or ignorance – the authors of the seminal software patterns book, /Design Patterns/, had read and understood Alexander well, probably better than I do. However, they oversimplified by leaving out forces – just for now, they thought. However, due to one thing and another, the idea of forces mostly didn’t make it into the software literature. There are exceptions – Eric Evans’s /Domain-Driven Design/ being the most well-known – but they’re scarce. If you’re interested in more about software patterns, see the video or transcript of my 2017 talk “Patterns Failed. Why? Should We Care?”

That out of the way, let’s talk forces. The word is a metaphor. Consider the masonry arches you find everywhere in older architecture: made of stones, bricks, mortar, cement, that sort of thing. Masonry is strong when you try to squeeze it and weak when you try to stretch it. In the jargon, it’s strong in compression and weak in tension. That has consequences.

Suppose you’re required to build a bridge, meaning a horizontal surface over some empty space. The simple solution would be a series of walls to hold up the floor of the bridge. OK, but now consider a horizontal floor span going from one wall to its neighbor. The span is supported on its ends, but unsupported in the middle. Gravity pulls down on the middle, creating tension. Since masonry is weak in tension, you’d have to have short spans and a lot of walls, which would be expensive, plus awkward if you want any traffic to go under the bridge – like, say, boats going down a river that it spans.

The arch is a clever solution to this problem. Consider an arch made out of bricks. Each brick mostly presses down on the brick next to and below it, meaning that all the bricks are in compression. The full weight of the structure supported by the arch is delivered to the feet of the arch. Some of the force is vertical, which is opposed because the arch is sitting on the ground. Some of the force is horizontal, which can be opposed if there’s the leg of another arch of the same weight pushing against it - like in a bridge with multiple arches. Or, for the end two arches of the bridge, by anchoring them to a strong enough foundation. Essentially the forces transferred down the arch to the ground are balanced by forces *from* the ground, and it’s all compression, all the time.

Alexander, as an architect, treats human desires as forces that metaphorically push people around. For example, pattern 180 of the 253 in /A Pattern Language/ is Window Space. It’s illustrated by a black and white picture of an enclosure that looks built into a really thick wall – more than a meter thick, I think. But actually, I suspect what’s on either side of the enclosure is something like closets. In any case, the enclosure has an open side facing the camera, then two side walls. Within the enclosure, there are two benches sitting flush against those side walls. Each looks to be a good width for one person to sit on. The benches are far enough apart that those two people can face each other without bumping knees. The enclosure is roofed by a pretty little arch. Most of the far wall of the enclosure is a three-paned window to the outdoors. In sum, there’s a place for sitting, with a window to look out of.

The picture is followed by: “Everybody loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them.”

Alexander then describes why that is:

“If [a] room contains no window which is a ‘place,’ a person in the room will be torn between two forces:
1. He wants to sit down and be comfortable.
2. He is drawn toward the light.”

The rest of the Window Place pattern describes what makes a seat near a window into a “place” that gives a pleasant feeling of enclosure.

Understanding the forces is important for understanding how to tailor the pattern without breaking it. I once transformed our front room from a place we didn’t use to the place we use every day: in part by making space to put two rocking chairs alongside our big bay window. That’s much less enclosed than the book’s picture, and potentially has less of a feeling of being a “place”. To make it more of a place, I put a wooden lobster trap – acting as a sort of end table – to my right, so that when I’m typing on the computer on my lap, the bay window’s seat board (or the wide inner sill) is on my left and the lobster trap is on my right. It’s both open and cozy.

For a second example, I’ll use Stair Seats, a pattern to help design outdoor public spaces where people might gather. Its picture shows a front porch with a sturdy railing and five wide steps from the porch floor down to ground level. The stairs are flanked by wide banisters or balustrades. People are sitting on the railing, steps, and balustrades, basically goofing around and chatting. Most of the people are a little or a lot above eye level from the photographer’s perspective (presumably on the street or sidewalk).

Here’s the first of the forces balanced by Stair Seats:

“People seek a vantage point from which they can take in the action as a whole. […] Anybody who is ‘people-watching’ will naturally try to take up a position a few feet above the action.”

But there’s a countervailing force:

“The trouble is that this position will usually have the effect of removing a person from the action. Yet most people want to be able to take the action in and to be part of it at the same time. This means that any places which are slightly elevated must also be within easy reach of passers-by, hence on circulation paths [that’s another pattern], and directly accessible from below.”

Both forces can be accommodated at the same time:

“The bottom few steps of stairs, and the balusters and rails along stairs, are precisely the kinds of places which resolve these tendencies. People sit on the edges of the lower steps, if they are wide enough and inviting, and they lean against the rails. […]

“When there are areas in public places which are both slightly raised and very accessible, people naturally gravitate toward them. Stepped cafe terraces, steps surrounding public plazas, stepped porches, stepped statues and seats are all examples.”

Strictly, there’s a third force, which is that people will want to watch the action while sitting, more than while standing. The need for seats is implied, if not demanded, by other patterns like Sequence of Sitting Spaces, Sitting Circle, and Built-In Seats, all of which speak to how people like to gather, both for watching and for talking. In general, a single part of a built structure will involve patterns working together. The shownotes contain a link to an interesting talk by Ryan Singer about how that works in software.

In the discussion that follows, I’ll often describe Farrell’s roles both in terms of what they do and how I think they might help balance particular forces within the team.

≤ music ≥

There has to be a critical mass of people in a collaborative circle who are (1) ambitious for either personal success or feel a strong personal identification with their field, (2) enjoy talking about work, and (3) enjoy – or feel driven to – *doing* the work. If there is not, the circle will not progress beyond a social group or endless bull session.

Except for the feminist Ultras, the circle was founded by someone with those properties who is also gregarious and looking for likeminded people to talk with. Farrell calls this person a Gatekeeper and sometimes uses the metaphor of matchmaker. The latter applies because once the Gatekeeper finds two suitable people, the Gatekeeper introduces them. Once there are enough sympatico people, the Gatekeeper will likely be the one to establish a regular meeting place and time.

(The Ultras didn’t have a Gatekeeper, largely because the relatively few receptive women were scattered over the US Northeast and also because there weren’t any feminist “places” to go to to meet other feminists. Contrast the Impressionists, who knew Paris was the place they had to be. Without a single “place”, the feminists found each other by attending – as second-class citizens – social reform meetings in various cities and towns. Vastly less efficient.)

I imagine a team-building Gatekeeper as someone who’s always talking up software development on the company Slack; or maybe, in old-style companies, organizing regular lunch discussions in the cafeteria. Now, I could imagine some technical lead or project manager seeking out people in a Gatekeeper network to invite them to quote “join this ambitious team I’m building”. But circles tend to be egalitarian in a way that makes me suspicious that such a recruitment drive could produce an actual collaborative circle. (It might produce something else creative – collaborative circles are not the One True Way any more than anything else is.)

But if circle-style software teams aren’t formed from above, how are they formed? Here, I’m out of my depth. I spent most of my career working with already-formed teams, so what do I know? I will say that I suspect it will be by some form of infiltration. The Gatekeeper’s network will take over existing teams. I’ll leave the details to you.

≤ short music ≥

Thinking in terms of forces, let’s accept that the status quo exerts a force tending to pull people *out* of a circle. Consider: it’s easier for an ambitious person to succeed within the status quo. You just have to have the technical skill to do the work according to the accepted standards; you don’t have to both invent new standards and *then* do the work. Moreover, if you mix with people who accept the status quo, you’ll find most of that “herd” disapproves of you, always hard for a social animal.

People who join a circle typically start out pulled less strongly by the status quo than most. They are often marginal in some way: that is, the status quo doesn’t *want* them. The feminists are a good example. Many became feminists because they weren’t allowed their first choice as reformers: which was to become abolitionists or enemies of the demon rum. Some of the Fugitive Poets might have been tempted into the status quo by faculty mentors, but those were scarce at Vanderbilt University.

Another factor lessening the pull of the status quo is that circle members are typically young. If older, they’re usually novices at a new profession, like how Joseph Conrad retired from being a sea captain to take up writing. As such, they have less to lose than someone who’s already somewhat established – and they have less to unlearn.

Despite that, the pull of the status quo will exist throughout the life of the circle. It’s probably strongest early on – before the circle has worked out an alternative that they can unite behind.

So the circle needs a countervailing pull, one away from the status quo.
A key role is the Charismatic Leader, and I don’t think I can do better than to quote Farrell’s summary description. One warning, though: Farrell uses the word “narcissism”, which brings to mind raging narcissistic personality disorder. I think he’s a Freudian, using it more in the sense of a universal property that’s only a harmful disorder in truly extreme cases. So:

“The charismatic leader is a highly narcissistic novice who has more expertise than most other novices in the network, and who for some reason attracts their admiration. This person is often someone who is not linked to a mentor, but more likely is in open rebellion against the visions of the [available] mentors. Restless and discontent[ed], the charismatic leader is someone determined to do something new. Like many narcissistic people, the charismatic leader thrives in the presence of an audience. The attention of the group encourages the leader to perform, and the performances challenge the other novices to keep pace. What is important is that the charismatic leader directs the others into an exploration of new problems in the discipline […] This leader sets the pace in acquiring skill and expertise and in imaginative creative work. Like Ransom writing his first poetry, or like Claude Monet attempting his ambitious outdoor paintings, the charismatic leader sets a high standard and has the courage to model the creative process.”

As I noted last episode, in the early days circles spend a lot of time complaining, which can get tedious to people who favor *doing the work*. The Charismatic Leader serves as a promise that the circle in its early, complaining phase is nevertheless “going somewhere”. Just not maybe yet. The leader models a freedom and a potential that others can actively aspire to.

I want to emphasize – just a bit – that the Charismatic Leader may be somewhat more experienced, but they are neither an expert nor *think of themselves as an expert*. That’s why I’m skeptical of technical leads or project managers recruiting a circle. That smacks of treating circle members as means to an end, of using them to work out a private vision. Some people find that motivating – I’m sometimes one of them – but that’s a different social structure than a collaborative circle.

That’s because circles are notably egalitarian, particularly in the beginning. Farrell appeals to Bourdieu’s metaphor of different types of capital: economic, social, and cultural. Quoting Farrell: “Economic capital is income and wealth. Social capital is the support a person can rely upon from others as a result, for example, of their obligations for past favors. For professionals in a discipline network, cultural capital is the expertise acquired through education or exposure to those with knowledge and skills in the discipline.”

Not all members of an early collaborative circle will have the same amounts of each kind of capital, but we can add the metaphor of an “exchange rate between them”: so much cultural capital is worth so much economic capital, and so on. Members of the circle should feel roughly equal in the totality of their capital. Farrell says of the early Impressionists, “When Bazille, Monet, Renoir, and Sisley formed their circle in 1862, they were not equal on all three dimensions [but] Bazille and Sisley had access to economic capital through their families. Bazille also had social capital through his family contacts with the upper middle class, including Edouard Manet’s family. Monet and Renoir had more cultural capital in the form of skill at painting and knowledge of contemporary art. Monet also had social capital in the form of connections with several older landscape painters.”

A good way for a Charismatic Leader to damage a collaborative circle is to start thinking of himself as a teacher or a boss or a decider – someone ready to deploy higher social capital (sometimes imaginary). That’s a failure mode I’ve seen in a number of people appointed as technical leads. I suggest the humble attitude shown by an old Firesign Theater album: “I think we’re all bozos on this bus.”

≤ short music ≥

A tried-and-true way to diminish the attractiveness of another group of people – here, the status quo – is to heighten antagonism. The roles of the Tyrant, Scapegoat, and Lightning Rod come into play here. First, the Tyrant.

Quoting Farrell:

“Tyrants are authoritative figures who represent the traditional values that the group members reject. Usually, members of a collaborative circle achieve consensus in their rejection of the values of these authorities long before they establish consensus about their own shared beliefs and values. They are clear about what they reject, but they are vague about what they believe.

“A group ritual during this stage includes relating stories about the unacceptable or ludicrous behavior of the tyrants. Among the Impressionists, the stories centered on the outrageous decisions and values of the Salon jury. Among the Fugitives, the rejected authorities included the ‘Brahmins’ of Southern literature and their stodgy representatives on the Vanderbilt faculty.”

As that last suggests, the Tyrant can be more abstract than a named individual. Among the lightweight methods people in 2001, the Rational Unified Process (promoted by IBM) was a Tyrant. I remember one person at the workshop that wrote the Agile Manifesto said something like, “I don’t care what it says, so long as IBM can’t sign onto it.” Among the context-driven testing circle, I’d argue that programmers as a class were often treated as Tyrants. Certainly there were stories centering on their often-outrageous decisions and values. As the circle member who most identified with programmers, that was often somewhat awkward for me.

More generally, I’m not a huge fan of hating on people, and the idea that the Tyrant is needed makes me uncomfortable. If it makes you uncomfortable too, I salute you. But remember solidarity is a countervailing force to the pull of the status quo, so – if you have no Tyrant – you very likely will need *some* sort of substitute.

A more appealing early role is the Lightning Rod, outward-facing version. This is a person who is not content just to gossip about representatives of the status quo but “takes the battle to the enemy”. An example from the Impressionists is Emile Zola. He was a writer, not a painter, but he hung out with the Impressionists. Farrell writes,

“Zola early on assumed the role of ‘lightning rod’ for the group, the one who internalizes the interests and hostilities of other members and articulates them to unsympathetic, oppressive authorities. […]

“In 1866, the twenty-five-year-old Zola, then a journalist for L’Evenment, wrote a series of articles praising the works of Manet, Monet, and PIssarro. The reactions to the first six articles were so negative that the paper discontinued the series.”

They also fired him.

What purpose does the Lightning Rod serve? I think it is to be attacked. Seeing one of their own attacked increases group solidarity, but there may be something more. Consider that, especially early in the life of a circle, when it hasn’t really *accomplished* anything, people at all prone to self-doubt are going to be... doubting themselves. I want to claim that being ignored by the status quo – which is probably their default reaction – causes more self-doubt than being *argued with*. Moreover, argument will help refine the vague objections that the circle started with, which seems to be necessary to move on.

A good example of the work of a Lightning Rod is James Bach’s “Enough about process, what we need are heroes” editorial, which I mentioned in the bonus episode on the history of the Context-Driven Testing circle. His piece was intended to provoke argument, and it did.

Farrell mentions another fear (or force) that threatens people’s bonding to a circle, and the role that counters it.

“Members in the rebellion stage usually have gained enough trust in one another to disclose their dissatisfactions with their discipline, but they have not yet carved out a direction of their own. One of their worst fears during the rebellion stage is that they may be hypocrites; beneath their pretensions they may be no different from those who adhere to conventional thinking. Even worse, they fear that they may be as undisciplined and inept as their most hostile critics claim them to be. To buttress their fragile self-esteem, it is common for members to highlight their own virtues by contrasting them to the vices of a scapegoat – a peer who is seen as embodying “sentimentality”, “technical incompetence”, “undisciplined rebelliousness,” or other such traits that they deny or attempt to suppress in themselves. The scapegoat is often a member of the extended network of the group, rarely one of its core participants.

“[…] Group meetings frequently become occasions for exchanging stories about scapegoats. When the members gossip about the scapegoat, when they ritualistically share stories about his or her follies, they reassure themselves that they are free of the ‘vices’ the scapegoat represents. The scapegoat becomes an inverted emblem for the group members, symbolizing what they wish to root out of themselves and the group culture.”

I find scapegoating, like the need for a Tyrant, distasteful, and I’m glad that most collaborative circles are able to abandon both roles as they grow more accomplished. Not all, though. The Fugitive Poets retained their fondness for finding enemies well after Farrell says most circles grow out of it. It’s my opinion that the Context-Driven Testing circle did the same, and I think that contributed to its probably-premature disintegration.

Such early failures – and, indeed, later failures – are prevented by another role, the role of Peacemaker. The Fugitive Poets had a talented Peacemaker in the form of Donald Davidson, and I propose that helped them survive their enemy-seeking behavior. The Context-Driven Circle did not have a Peacemaker, and so it did not survive.

Here’s Farrell’s brief description of the role:

“Finally, in response to the negativity that emerges during this stage, one member may take on the role of peacemaker. The peacemaker is the member who attempts to modulate the negativity, resolve conflicts, and restore harmony to the circle when the interaction becomes openly hostile. The peacemaker contributes to the integration of the group as [a] whole and acts as therapist to agitated members.”

There, he was describing a use for the Peacemaker role early in the lifecycle. But the role is also useful as the circle moves on to discussing each others’ works and arriving at a shared vision:

“As the members attempt to build consensus on their own emerging values, and as they use these values to evaluate one another’s work, the conflicts between them become more intense. As the negative feelings and conflicts mount, the role of peacemaker becomes more salient. Sensitive to the levels of anger or hurt that occur in a group, the peacemaker tries to mediate conflicts, either openly or behind the scenes.”

Synergistic with the Peacemaker might be our old friend the Lightning Rod, but this time facing internally. Susan B. Anthony of the Ultras is an example. The Ultras are a weird case because they went public very early, so they were forming their vision of a just society at the same time they were learning techniques for presenting it to the public. The “what we want” and the “how we work” got tangled up, for example in the question of whether they should present as traditionally feminine. There were two issues: speaking and dress.

On speaking, the problem was that women were socialized to speak softly, which is not great for public speaking in an era before microphones. Here’s a contemporary report of what might be called training sessions:

“Several of the speakers had weak, piping voices which did not reach beyond a few of the front seats and, after one of these finished, Miss Anthony said, ‘Mrs. President, I move that hereafter the papers shall be given to some one to read who can be heard. It is an imposition on the audience to have to sit quietly through a long speech of which they can not hear a word. We do not stand to be seen, but to be heard.’ Then there was a protest. Mrs. Davis said she wished it to be understood that, ‘ladies did not come here to screech; they came to behave like ladies and to speak like ladies.’ Miss Anthony held her ground, declaring that the question of being ladylike had nothing to do with it; the business of any one who read a paper was to be heard.”

How women should dress was very much a political issue. I won’t go into the details, but take a look at the article on “bloomers” in Wikipedia. Here’s a quote about two women at an organizing meeting:

“Both attended the meeting and the convention in short sleeved, low-necked dresses, one with a pink the other with a blue embroidered wool delain sack with wide, flowing sleeves, which left both neck and arm exposed.”

One of them was nominated for president of the convention. Miss Anthony “spoke out boldly and said that nobody who dressed as she did could represent the earnest, solid, hard-working women of the country for whom they were making the demands for equal rights.”

Anthony won the point, and the commentator continues, “This is but one instance of hundreds where Miss Anthony alone dared say what others dared think.”

To simplify: issues tend to fester. The Lightning Rod prevents them from being ignored. The Peacemaker prevents their resolution from damaging the foundations of trust and fellow-feeling that a circle depends upon.

≤ music ≥

I confess that writing the script for these roles was kind of a downer. I rather hate the idea that tearing something down is a necessary prerequisite to building up something new, but it sure seems a common pattern in all kinds of human change, not just collaborative circles. Nevertheless, I’m eager to move into the part of the trajectory where the creativity happens.

But that, alas, will happen in the next episode. I will also talk about the difference between an activation pattern in a rabbit’s olfactory bulb and the word “carrot”, so I hope you’ll join me. In any case, thank you for listening.

E39: Roles in collaborative circles, part 1
Broadcast by