In which the cynic pontificates caringly about calm alpha

Semi liveblogged on the train home to Bath. Dissent, ritual or not, welcome.

Beforehand I thought the CALM conference was an interesting attractor, but I was not sure what the boundaries were. I was hoping to meet new interesting people, get to know others better and maybe see the space of agile and lean move forward (or die, also good).

Chatting with Jim Benson and Steve Freeman on the way out, I said I left, because I didn’t feel I was learning or contributing. Jim came with a nice bastardization of ghandi: “be the learning you want to see in the world”. I should have made it more specific – I felt I was about to stop learning or contributing because I was tired.

Outcomes were reached: I met interesting people, learned, and went home with things to explore and exploit.

In the goldfish bowl discussion after lunch, I spoke up – meta – as I was about to nod off, and requested we’d spend some time mashing up stuff. I felt we were not using the experience in the room well. Yes, you can participate in a goldfishbowl, and most of the time most people are listening. Steve suggested I could have done that earlier. I hesitated to do that. There was a fair amount of presentation going on. I know I have less patience with presentations than other people. So I decided to sift for nuggets and do some writing in the meantime. There were already enough organisers, and other people butting in on conference structure does not always a better conference make.

After the goldfishbowl Jon Kendall was kind enough to show how he uses the cognitive edge sensemaking tool on an actual job. Which helped me put the pieces Marc Evers gave me together.

Steve wondered why there was not more debate during the goldfish bowl after lunch. At SPA there used to be heavy debate during goldfish bowls. I guess the timing after lunch wasn’t great, and before lunch we had had a couple of presentations / case studies which for me was tiresome after an interesting evening in the bar. I loved the ritual dissent exercise though.

Another explanation for the lack of debate might be that this is one of the few places I’ve been to in recent years where everyone present can hold strong opinions loosely. People and authors checked there egos at the door, and everyone freely shared how they worked and, more importantly, what had not worked out as they wanted.

I didnt’ feel like debating, because I did not hear much (except during some of the presentations yesterday) that struck me as shortsighed or bad use of metaphor. Which may of course be due to limited understanding on my part. Unlike say at conferences where a certain agile methodology prevails, and people believe long term planning is filling a backlog or if something doesn’t work well ‘the product owner or fill-in-cookie-cutter-rolename-here should do this.

Instead there were seasoned practitioners of various things, and most discussions were more like ‘what do you do’ ‘I’ve done this, and the effects of it are like this’. ‘Oh, interesting I’ve done a variation of it and the effects where like this’.

Personally, I am glad the organisers did not try to cram discussing the whole of complexity science in two days. Instead we had people who had applied practices from cynefin, agile and lean and were willing to be frank about what had worked for them and what not, as well as bring in things they didn’t quite understand.

In order to show that I care, As a Cynic, I’ll say that this Cynefin Lean Agile Mashup is never going to amount to a hill of beans. Please move along. Nothing to see here ;) (while some skunks go off into the sunset and do interesting works).

10 Responses to “In which the cynic pontificates caringly about calm alpha”

  1. Chris Matts Says:


    Thank you for caring enough to write this up. I had intended to keep my thoughts to myself but you have inspired me to write them up. After all, it’s ritual dissent. I expect the CALM bandwagon will continue so they need our criticism.

    It was good seeing you.


  2. Ritual Dissent « The IT Risk Manager Says:

    [...] Willem has written up the CALMalpha event. This morning we did an exercise called “Ritual Dissent” whereby someone presented an idea and everyone at the table ripped into it as viscously as they could.( In real options, we call this “break the model” but do it in a nicer way. ) I intend to do just that to the CALMalpha event in the hope that future events will be better. [...]

  3. Willem Says:

    It was good seeing you too Chris, thanks for the post and the comment. I plan to write some more later.

  4. Francis Fish Says:

    I’m really interested to find out what a “cognitive edge sensemaking tool” is – because (forgive me) it sounds a bit like a new age unicorn taming tool. I’m not trying to wind anyone up or troll you, just to understand.


  5. Dave Snowden Says:

    We we got a few skunks to go and do interesting work then it was worthwhile. Otherwise thanks for this, useful material but I suspect the hill of beans may be bigger and more valuable than you think. But only time will tell.

  6. Tobias Mayer Says:

    Thanks Willem for this write up (and thanks to Chris Matts too for his post). I had high hopes of this mashup, and was disappointed not to be able to attend. Less so now.

    Perhaps there are just too many conferences (sorry, ‘events’) these days. Same people, same ideas being recycled, and everyone is striving to promote the Next Big Thing. Perhaps instead we need micro-conferences, where small groups (hey, 7+-2 maybe) gather together in cafes and pubs, have edgy conversations and continually interleave with one another. I think the big conference is a dead idea. Massive overhead in time and cost with minimal reward.

    Also, re Cynefin/CALM, this talk (more on Chris’s post) of CE’s proprietary approach to ideas is disturbing. Trying to understand that better, as CE spokespeople seem to be saying something different.

    I’m glad you guys attended, and have shared your thoughts in the blogosphere. Thanks.

  7. Willem Says:

    Attempt at irony failed. I probably will be one of the skunks, I was hoping to come out with more results, but that may be me wishing for premature convergence.

  8. Willem Says:

    Microconferences, or dinner parties sounds like a good idea. I’ve been going to conferences less, instead spending more time working with others one on one.

  9. Olaf Lewitz Says:

    Willem, Tobias, Chris, Dave,
    I love the idea of small micro gatherings with a purpose. Let’s create a real option for this to emerge.
    Thanks for your comments,
    - Olaf

  10. Willem Says:

    Olaf, Tobias, Chris, Dave,

    it doesn’t have to be hard. Gabrielle Benefield suggested dinner parties last week. Since many of us are also food nuts, that might make it extra interesting…