“For purpose-creating systems, everything has a purpose.“ (N. Luhmann)
Meaning: Even apparent nonsense has some meaningful purpose.
I recently read an article in the knowledge magazine SZ Magazin of the South German Newspaper („Dem Amateur ist nichts zu schwör“, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Number 24/ 20120615), which discussed amateurs in the fields of politics, economy and science, and the fact that seemingly annoying or insubstantial questions often initiate contemplation and re-thinking.
An example given is „Genspace“ – New York City‘s Community Biolab – whose Team consists of artists, programmers and one single biologist that research and develop topics/ products together that may initially seem pointless. These topics include the idea of cells following commands or bacteria gleaming in colour when placed under a black light. For preparation, the amateurs receive an introductory course in gene research and then … get started.
Since there are not many rules, best practices or rituals (even behaviour-based ones) that tell you what to do and how to do “it“, amateurs are not confronted with the mental block that educated experts often have to deal with. I would like to call this phenomenon “jailed creative thinking“. However, particularly at the outset of a project, it is not possible to prove that a team of amateurs will actually deliver something rich in content. This requires pioneers with courage, nerve and intellect who will: just do it.
Of course, the Süddeutsche Zeitung would not publish something without proof: “Two years ago, an article was published in Nature – the most important science magazine worldwide – presenting results that had in part come from amateurs who had analysed the structure of protein strands by way of using a kind of computer game.“
Advice from an Amateur?
At work, I experience a lot of meetings where alleged amateurs give feedback and tips for improving a highly complex product which has just been built by accomplished professionals (this is certainly true for this product). During the Review, the Scrum Team comes together with the User and stakeholder in order to get input and listen to potential improvements. Instead, I often experience how – after the presentation of the product increment – wishes, questions and ideas for features are put forward by the circle of amateurs, who are then immediately waved aside by the developers with the words of “absurd“, “impossible“ or “epic lol“…
In such situations, the developers make use of their learnt knowledge by roaming within their “jailed creative thinking“, which knows enough laws, rituals and best practices to subject them to a life sentence of solitary confinement. Sometimes, amateurs get lucky by hearing the reaction of “Alright, maybe in 10 years…“, which is my cue to step in and ask, “What is it that has to have happened by then?“ In start-up companies, it is this kind of question that pulls the trigger for finding innovative products by way of using creative solutions. This freedom sometimes allows us to ignore the purpose behind existing realities and helps one‘s creativity to break free by actually having to find „out of the box“ solutions.
Amateurs are Innovators
The authors of the SZ Magazin article furthermore remind their readership of the fact that over the course of cultural history, amateurs were for a long time seen as innovators. It surely isn‘t easy to utilise this lack of purpose and amateurism to create something new in the realm of agile product development, but for something to happen, we must start by simply beginning.
After all, there has never been any purpose behind combining jazz and electronic music. Simply ask former electronic music amateur Klaus Waldeck.
Neither was there any purpose behind combining classical and electronic music. Simply ask former classical music amateur Henrik Schwarz.
Or just tune in to their products. To render homage to the authors of the SZ Magazin article: both music amateurs have already proven themselves, as parts of their oeuvres are sold by the most important labels worldwide.