An Examination of Conversation

My last post received a couple of comments that raised a few good points which I think dovetail very nicely with my attempt to "relocate" Agile Conversations to a firmer foundation.

One point was that the distinction between reality and fiction was flat and potentially unhelpful. I will admit that I intentionally shut off certain avenues of consideration as I was afraid I would inject my own meaning into the words used by the authors of the book and who they quoted, rather than what they actually meant. Here I must acknowledge a limitation of human languages: We can use two different words to mean the same thing and use the same word to mean two different things. This limitation is why I focused on the word "fiction" and what was meant when Yuval Harari or Douglas Squirrel or Jeffrey Fredrick used it. Now that I'm not as focused on what they meant, I feel a little freer to explore possible alternative meanings.

A second point introduced an excellent alternative meaning. "Fiction" could be interpreted as "model", which would address most of my concerns and still fit the intent of the authors. I like the word "model" and prefer it to "fiction" since all models are an acknowledged attempt to imitate reality. Applying this to Agile Conversations, I see that the authors are giving the reader the tools and techniques to build and improve a conversational model. This model can then be used within a business context to build and improve a shared model of the business constraints and customer needs. So using "Model" definitely fits within the authors' state goals for "Agile Conversations", yet I think only focusing on the model drops an important aspect that exists in the word "fiction".

A third point hinted at this important aspect: for a model to be useful, it must fit within a specific context and scope, and meet certain goals. To evaluate a model, we need something in addition to consider. I think we would need the story of how the model came into existence, the insights that led to its creation, and any oversights that had to be overcome during its creation and development. This story would explain the constraints or invariants that made the model usable in our particular context and gave us confidence that it would met our goals. Sometimes, however, the story does not satisfy because it goes against our experience or previously accepted stories. To truly determine the potential usefulness of the model, we may need to re-examine it based on statements that, once we understand the meaning of the words, we cannot but assent that they are true. These statements are often referred to as first principles.

The first principles can be grasped through the interaction of two different human activities. The first activity is the human ability to sense the world, the second is the human ability to reflect on what it has sensed. Because these principles are grasped from how we can know reality, it means that they apply to all branches of knowledge. Working from these principles is rather slow and difficult, which is why we rely on stories that assume them and the conclusions that come from them.

Conversations build on top of this natural human ability to grasp first principles. According to Merriam-Webster Online the definition of conversation is:

  • oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas
  • an instance of such exchange: talk
  • Conduct, Behavior

The brief etymology stated that "conversation derived from Middle English conversacioun, which came from Anglo-French conversacion, which in turn came from Latin conversation-, conversatio, from conversari "to associate with", frequentative of convertere "to turn around".

Combining the current definition and the original Latin definition, we end up with the rough meaning of "To turn over with another". When we are in conversation, we are "turning over" the topic being discussed. This aligns with the two human activities relied upon to recognize the first principles. Two or more people sense some reality and then reflect together on what they sensed. As we can see from the limitation of language and human perception, we know that each person will arrive at different conclusions about the same reality. Sharing those different conclusions and seeking to build a consistent and shared model based on those conclusions while weeding out incorrect conclusions using first principles is precisely what the authors of Agile Conversations are seeking to do. Conversations can take what each person can do with grasping truths about the world, and turn it up to 11.

However, without a firm foundation in first principles, we can accept stories that assume wrong conclusions or deny certain first principles. This can make conversations unproductive if not downright impossible. The denial of first principles can arise from either rejecting the senses as a source of knowledge by claiming that they are utterly unreliable, or by rejecting that the human mind can grasp reality and claiming that the senses are the only source of knowledge. Now there is some truth to both statements, as we can see in the cognitive biases or perceptual delusions that human beings can experience. Yet without both actions, the sensing and the reflecting, we would be unable to know anything, which we can prove from first principles.

For a short and inadequate version of the argument:
- Through our senses, we are aware that everything is changing
- Through reflection on what we sense, we can grasp what is fixed, what are the laws the govern the changes that we see.
- If the senses are unreliable, then we couldn't know that things change, and be unable to determine the fixed laws
- If nothing is fixed, then we would not be able to determine that a change had happened, much less be able to predict how something changes or when something would change.

This would contradict the first principle that "Being is, Non-being is not". the changes that we grasp through the senses are too real to be dismissed, and the fixed laws which govern those changes and can only be grasped through the intelligence are also too real to be dismissed. As an example, you cannot say that the law of evolution exists, and then say that evolution proves there are no fixed laws

Taken from God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy by Fulton J. Sheen.

With all this in mind, I now need to turn back to the original concept of "shared fictions" and see if I have laid out a firmer foundation for "Agile Conversations". The problem that I see with "shared fictions" is that it promotes the idea that there are no fundamental truths or first principles about the world. I will admit the possibility that my perception is wrong but it is very difficult to do so when the development of shared fictions arises from an evolutionary process that appears to violate the first principle that the greater cannot come from the lesser. I also don't see what would prevent one shared fiction from being replaced with another, even if they both made the opposite claims about reality. Building upon such a foundation would be like building on sand. However, if the stories and models about our everyday experience are grounded in first principles, while it may not be perfect, would not be liable to shifting around just because an alternative fiction became more popular.

I hope this blog post sufficiently explains my concerns and responds to the comments that I have received while writing the last two. These posts were a lot harder than I thought they would be as I had to think a lot deeper than I probably would have. Since I've now told my story, I would like to open this up for a conversation. Feel free to reach out to me either in the comments or the various platforms that I hang out on.

The Lie of Useful Fictions

While writing about the helpful analysis described in Agile Conversations, I mentioned that I had some concerns with the book. While the analysis method draws upon solid scientific studies and I have personally found the conversation types useful in identifying and engaging in the different interactions that I have with my co-workers, the foundation upon which the authors built bothered me. The fundamental reason that the authors give for why conversations are effective at changing culture is as follows:

"Though our ability to gossip surpasses that of other species, [Yuval] Harari says that what is really unique about human language is our ability to discuss non-existent things. (Sapiens, Ch. 2). With this special power, we are able to create and believe shared fictions. These fictions allow us to collaborate at tremendous scales and across groups of people who have never met. In this way, a community's belief in a crocodile-headed god can create flood control works on the Nile, as described by Harari in another of his books, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Homo Deus, 158). And a shared belief in continuous improvement can allow us to create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture rather than a power-oriented or rule-oriented culture, as described in Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim (Accelerate, 31)."

What triggered the most negative reaction was the concept of "shared fiction". The idea that fictions enabled large groups to collaborate didn't make sense. Rather than dismissing my reaction, I went in pursuit of what it was that bothered me, starting with a rough definition of "shared fiction".

I went to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and pulled the following definition for "shared":

  • used, done, belonging to, or experienced by two or more individuals

And the following definitions for "fiction":

  • something invented by the imagination or feigned
  • an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth

After seeing these definitions, my initial reaction was to cynically and naively reword the last sentence into the laughable statement: "And if we feigned that continuous improvement could actually happen, then we could create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture rather than a power-oriented or rule-oriented culture..." Such a statement reminds me of the fairy tale about the Emperor's New Clothes. Just pretend and everyone will play right along until someone points out the obvious. While the rewording was overly simplistic in its application of the definitions, it led me to wonder what Yuval Harari meant when he used the word "fiction".

In an interview that he gave to the Smithsonian Magazine, Yuval Harari states:

"The truly unique trait of Sapiens [that is, human beings] is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication systems to describe reality. We use our communication systems to create new realities. Of course, not all fictions are shared by all humans, but at least one has become universal in our world, and this is money. Dollar bills have absolutely no value except in our collective imagination, but everyone believes in the dollar bill."

This division between the physical paper of the dollar bill and its accepted value provides a clue to what Yuval Harari means when he speaks of shared fictions. If I understand what he means, then Harari is saying that a shared fiction is a fiction that a group of people agree exists when it does not exist. I know of another more unpleasant word for "saying that something exists when it does not exist": a lie. Of course, claiming that Harari is saying the Egyptians were lying to each other about the crocodile-headed god of the Nile falls into the trap of believing that we humans can achieve perfect knowledge of the reality around us. This trap is well summarized by the authors of Agile Conversations in the section on cognitive biases that follows the paragraph I quoted from the book.

Another angle on the separation between the physical dollar and its agreed value is that there is no scientific experiment from which we can determine the value of the dollar bill. To put it another way, there is no empirical evidence from the dollar bill itself that would determine its value. Applying this pattern to what Harari says about the crocodile-headed god of the Nile, it seems to match up. The definition for "shared fiction" appears to be: "something that two or more people claim to exist that has no scientific, empirical or sensible evidence to confirm its existence." Turning to the claim in Agile conversations about a shared belief in continuous improvement, it appears that "shared fiction" as described by Harari and "shared belief" as described by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick are synonymous.

If we applied this definition broadly, I fear we would find that justice, mercy, and peace would be categorized as "shared fictions". If that is over-broad, I would greatly appreciate being corrected, but based on Harari's application of this definition across science, legal theory, and religion, I find the case rather difficult to make. This definition of "shared fiction" appears to assume that "reality" would be defined as "something that has scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence to confirm its existence." These two definitions, as water-tight as they may seem, are incorrect. I will first deal with the definition of "reality" and then the definition of "shared fiction".

First, how do we know that reality is limited to scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence? If this is certain then we should be able to find such evidence to confirm it, and yet we don't. One example is the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Proof in physics, which indicates that any universe that has an average expansion rate greater than zero must have a beginning. Since our universe does have an average expansion rate greater than zero and nothing comes from nothing, something had to begin the universe. Now, scientific, empirical, and sensible evidence requires a universe to exist in the first place, yet it would be ridiculous to claim that a fiction brought reality into existence. Another example is from a longitudinal study of near-death experiences reported in The Lancet (van Lommel, et al 2001). In that study, they determined that the near-death experiences of the patients had no physical or medical root. Included in that study are examples of patients blind from birth who were able to accurately describe the people and environment around them during their near-death experience. In both of these examples*, we have indications that reality extends beyond scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence.

Second, if reality does indeed extend beyond scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence, that would contradict the definition of "shared fiction". One potential way to solve this contradiction would be to claim, as Harari does, that when we create "shared fictions" we create new realities. This goes against the basic common sense principle that something greater cannot come from something lesser. As we human beings are part of reality, and the part cannot be greater than the whole, then we cannot create a radically new reality to replace the existing reality. In addition, we human beings build fictions out of reality, which means that reality must be greater than fiction. Another potential way to resolve this contradiction is to point to examples of people who believed in crocodile-headed gods that didn't exist and how this "shared fiction" enabled them to collaborate with each other, as if to say that "if we can do great things by believing that non-realities are real, then so be it." However, believing that non-realities are real can be summed up in another unpleasant word: "insanity". I don't see how collective insanity would be an improvement to human life; it reminds me of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor who claimed he was greater than Christ since he would ensure people would go to heaven by teaching them that sin was a fiction, even if it meant that he would burn in hell for it.

Now, the authors of Agile Conversations don't say they are spreading a "shared fiction", though they do hint at it. "[A] shared belief in continuous improvement can allow us to create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture." The authors made a slight adjustment in switching from "shared fiction" to "shared belief". While we may invent fiction, we don't invent belief. Beliefs are often the result of observing the world and drawing conclusions. For example, I believe that I will see the sun tomorrow. However, by using the two terms in the same paragraph in a synonymous way, it appears that Squirrel and Frederick do mean to treat the idea of continuous improvement as a fiction that we should share for the benefit of others. I would posit that this effectively undermines the goal of their entire book, as it would be difficult to build trust and mitigate fear if we believed that all our work, in reality, was for a shared fiction. If that is the case, then something must have gone very, very wrong.

All this being said, there is much that was good to consider and helpful to use when working with others, so there is something "real" and not "fiction" in the book. With this in mind, I will attempt to identify in my next blog post a better foundation that would allow the book to be effective and truly promote the well-being of those who follow the conversational analysis as described in its pages.

Since I've made some very sweeping statements in this blog post, please reach out to me in case I got something wrong or missed a nuance. I want to make sure that my thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs are in alignment with reality, and that I'm not spreading a lie or encouraging insanity.

* These examples were pulled from The Big Book on